Managing Web Content

A company’s Web site is a unique and important venue for exposing and sharing data. Web sites have evolved over the past few years from a static set of pages that displayed a company’s marketing message to more interactive interfaces. Over the past 18 months, the move has been to enable e-commerce on Web sites. We are now at a point in the Web evolution where a company’s site may be its major source of revenue. Witness the incredible saga of Dell.com, which, according to one industry source, is responsible for $14 million in sales per day!

One fact that has become apparent is that this evolution is driven by the ability to access corporate data and make it available to consumers outside the corporation. If you’re contemplating updating your company’s Web site to do this, the big question is how are you going to manage it?

There are many types of sites you can build. But whether you’re building an auction site, a business-to-consumer site, a business-to-business site, or simply a corporate marketing brochure, you still have to consider a number of fundamental issues.

If you’re building a site that has an e-commerce component to it, it's a site that is transaction-oriented. Taking orders, checking credit status, and handling product fulfillment require deep integration with a variety of back office systems. For example, if you have a warehouse full of product, you have to verify availability generate a pick list for warehouse workers if it’s in stock or a back order if it’s not, print shipping labels, and notify the consumer when the product will be delivered. You’ll also need to link to your financial and accounting systems to handle payment.

There is a wide variety of products on the market today from vendors such as SAP, CommerceOne, MarketFirst, and others that handle these tasks. There are certainly content management issues to concern yourself with, but they are typically focused on managing the structure of the company catalog on the site.

If the focus of your site is delivering massive volumes of data to business partners, sales people, or corporate customers, then its difficulty is not one of transaction processing, but rather one of content management.

Web site content management is similar in aspects to the configuration management process that many application developers are familiar with. You have a team of developers -- or content providers -- who are dealing with a complex structure with potentially thousands of pages that are linked together into a complex web.

There are several requirements to consider. First, ensure that only one content provider can be working on a particular page at any one time. This requires a repository that supports check-in/check-out. Second, the repository should support versions. This allows you to rollback the structure of the Web site to a known, stable point in time -- crucial if there is a major failure on the site. Third, you need some mechanism for linking a page into the Web, which can require building both inbound and outbound links. An inbound link points from one page to the target page; an outbound link points from the target page to different page. You’ll want a tool that can check the links to ensure that you don’t have any dead links, that point to pages that no longer exist, or orphan pages that aren’t linked into the Web.

When you’re ready to go into production, you need some sort of staging process that can pull together the entire new version into a single package, move it to the production Web site, and install it with a minimum of downtime and disruption.

Some tools enhance the runtime environment with the ability to create dynamic content. This can be very useful if, for example, you want to personalize the user’s experience on the site based on the pages they’ve visited. Other products allow you to insert live "feeds-and-speeds" directly into a site, giving it a lively appearance.

By understanding these criteria and mapping them to the goals and objectives of your company’s Web site, you should be well on the way to selecting the best tools for the complex job of Web site content management. --Robert Craig is vice president of strategic marketing at Viador Inc. (Burlington, Mass.), and a former director at the Hurwitz Group Inc. Contact him at robert.craig@viador.com.