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Web Content Management Systems

By Lasa Information Systems Team

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Many organisations now have websites, are keen to get one, or to redevelop an existing site. Lots of these websites will consist of static HTML pages and will require some degree of technical knowledge to update (e.g. HTML skills, knowledge of Dreamweaver, FrontPage or some other web authoring package). This article explains how web content management systems can help you keep your website content under control.

Static HTML pages may be fine if your website is small, simple, has few interactive features such as discussion forums or polls, if content changes infrequently or if you have staff with the relevant technical skills in house. As websites increase in size and complexity, keeping track of content becomes much more difficult with static HTML pages. Bottlenecks can occur for example if the site needs updating regularly but only one person knows how to create or alter web pages and upload them to the site.

Content management

Content in the context of a website includes things like images, documents (including reports, fact sheets etc.), sound and video clips. A web Content Management System (CMS) is a sophisticated tool that can be used to make the whole process of web publishing much easier. The design and presentation of content on a web page is separated from the content creation process. This is because web pages and links can be dynamically generated from information held in a database. By making use of technologies such as XML (eXtensible Mark up Language), a CMS can also allow content that is stored in the database to be re-purposed for different devices such as mobile phones, handheld computers, kiosks and Web TV as well as PCs.

Design

With a CMS, web developers can concentrate on the site structure, navigation, look and feel without having to worry about creating and maintaining content. The whole site can remain consistent since information is drawn from the content database and plugged into templates created by the web developer for different types of web page. Different templates can be designed for different areas of a site if needed - for example the layout of a news page may need to be different to the layout of a fact sheet page. Templates can be designed to meet any necessary technical and accessibility standards. A CMS can also allow global changes to a site to be made much more easily if needed. The design of the template can be changed rather than having to edit each page individually.

Content creation

Content writers can concentrate on writing content without having to worry about design issues. Content can easily be added to the database and displayed on a web page by typing or pasting text into fields in a form within the CMS administration system. Information about the content (metadata) such as title, description, keywords, author, publish date, review date etc. can also be added. This enables content that needs updating to be searched for easily when it goes out of date and needs to be amended. A CMS can also be used to help manage workflow and maintain quality control by allowing an overall administrator of the system to set roles and permissions for authors, editors and publishers. For example several authors may be able to upload new material to the CMS at any time. The editor can be alerted when new content is added to the system. The new material can then be reviewed, approved, and finally published to the website by an authorised person at the click of a button.A CMS can therefore allow people without technical web authoring skills to easily update and maintain a website.

What to look for in a CMS

The needs of your organisation and website will largely determine what you want from a CMS however important features to consider include:

  • Web page templates (with the ability to update templates if needed) - the templates should conform to current recognised standards for web technologies and accessibility to ensure maximum compatibility across different browsers and platforms
  • Security and access rights for different types of user - e.g. only those with the correct authorisation should be able to publish material to the live site once its content has been approved
  • Integration with existing systems (- for example if you already have a suitable database could this be used? Do you need the CMS to convert your existing Word documents to HTML?)
  • Non technical content creation and publishing - perhaps your content authors should not be required to use HTML or other technical knowledge to create web pages
  • Facility to hold, edit and format text, and to link to and add other digital content such as images, audio and video to a web page easily
  • Ability to record information about the content (metadata) such as author, when it was updated, when it needs to be reviewed etc. and the means to report on this information
  • If the CMS is likely to have many simultaneous users, features such as record locking will be important to ensure that clashing changes are prevented
  • Ability to add, remove and archive content - a CMS could also offer the means to specify when a page should be put live on a site, and when it should be taken down (e.g. for press releases and news items)
  • Link management - so that when a new page is added or a page is deleted, links to or from other pages in the site are automatically created or removed. You may also require a facility to be notified automatically if there are any problems with links to external sites
  • Tools to allow the CMS administrators to create online surveys and polls and to easily collect, store and publish the results
  • Ability to run on your existing equipment

Content management systems can range from fairly simple to those with highly sophisticated workflow management processes built in. Some systems may require users to know a few basic HTML tags to format text while others will only require simple word processing skills. The more complicated your needs are, the more expensive the CMS is likely to be. Before identifying your specific requirements, it is important to:

  • Determine which goals of your organisation will be achieved by implementing a CMS - i.e. have a business case for getting one
  • Involve all the potential stakeholders in the process of drawing up your requirements - survey what information needs to be published via the CMS as this will influence the functionality you need

Once you've decided on your requirements specify them in plain language in as much detail as possible giving examples wherever you can. This will help potential suppliers understand your needs better.


Copyright © 2002 Lasa Information Systems Team

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