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Free Web Content Management

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Content management describes the process by which organizations share vital information online. To avoid the costs of these systems (or to even extend them) , the resources described in this article can prove to be surprisingly powerful, cost-effective alternatives.
Eileen Mullin is Vice President of Web Projects for Human Resources at Merrill Lynch. This article is excerpted from her new book, Free Commerce: The Ultimate Guide to E-business on a Budget (Prentice Hall PTR, 2001, ISBN 0-13-033767-6).
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Free Web Content Management

If you're the only person creating and posting content for your Web site, low-cost, commercial Web-authoring tools such as Microsoft's FrontPage or Macromedia's Dreamweaver may do the trick. But once responsibility for authoring content for your site expands beyond your desktop, a Web content management tool can help you regain control from a site management perspective.

These products let you manage the way content is added to your site, from page design to editorial review to content publishing. Small businesses and entrepreneurs can get a great deal of mileage out of a new series of free, flexible, online tools designed to control these processes right from your Web browser. Best of all, the ISPs set up to support these content management systems offer free Web site hosting to encourage early adopters and increase the use of these products. You can therefore not only experiment with time-saving tools for Web-based content authoring, but also have a no-cost, ad-free resource for publishing and maintaining your Web site. This is a great improvement over free Web site hosting services, such as GeoCities, which impose ad banners on your content.

Free Web Publishing Environments

Most content management tools let you, the administrator, control the overall look of the site through the use of templates. With templates, the layout, design, and navigational areas of your site are standardized, with designated areas for content to be added later. You may also want to control who has rights to add what content to the site. Because some of your users may be fairly non-technical, your toolset should be intuitive, even for novice Web users. You'll also want to ensure that there's a process in place to manage workflow—that is, to traffic content from submission through the publishing process, with rerouting for editing or approvals as necessary.

The content management systems and their associated free Web hosting services described in the following sections and in Table 1 require different levels of commitment and comfort, with looking under the hood to get the most out of their Web site management capabilities.

Table 1 Comparing Web Content Management Services

Feature

Zope

Conversant

Manila

Developer

Digital Creations

Macrobyte

Userland

Is the Web server software free?

Yes.

If you use the free Web hosting service (at Free-Conversant.com, you can conduct all of your Conversant work through your Web browser at no cost. For other uses, connect with vendor Macrobyte Resources for consulting Services.

If you use the free Web-hosting services for Manila sites, you can freely conduct all of your Manila work through the browser. To run Manila on your own Web server, you'll need the Userland Frontier content management system (which includes Manila), an $899 commercial product for Windows and Macintosh. You can download a fully functional, 60-day trial version at http://store.
userland.com/
trialWindow
.

Is free Web site hosting available?

Yes, through New Information Paradigms (NIP). The number of components you can add on here is more limited than if you host your own Zope implementation.

Another free resource for hosting a Zope site is Zopesite.com.

Yes, through Free-Conversant.com. For larger sites, subscription-based hosting is available for $35–$350 per month.

Yes, listed at ManilaSites.com.

Pros

Extremely flexible in terms of adding new functionality to a site.

Can also add multiple instances of a component—for example, two different threaded discussion boards, even to a free site hosted by NIP.

Easy-to-use wizard for setting up your own site on Free-Conversant.com.

Powerful macro and search capabilities.

You can specify a page's MIME type in the structure editor, which has a number of uses, such as enabling incorporating XML in your Web pages.

Easy-to-use interface for modifying Web pages.

Site membership feature lets you gather customized information from people who use your site.

Cons

Limited documentation. Customizing site design and installing new functionality still require technical resources.

Leveraging more sophisticated features requires technical expertise.

Free site hosting works best for sites with very small audiences because only 25 users may be signed up on the mailing list.

Leveraging more sophisticated features requires technical expertise.

Manila's feature set is much less robust than Conversant's or Zope's.


Zope

Digital Creations has developed Zope, a collaborative Web application server and content management system based on the Python programming language. Its open-source toolset lets you set up powerful interfaces to a database of Web-based applications.

Once you install a Web application as a component in your Zope installation, you can readily install as many variations or copies of that component on your site as you want. Let's say you're looking for a threaded discussion board forum or a tool for updating news headlines on your site. You can install, customize the look-and-feel, and promote such features to your audience within hours and without any real application development—using Zope's Squishdot threaded discussion board component.

As an open-source product, many enhancements to Zope's basic toolset have been developed, fully tested, and provided to Zope.org by other Zope-happy developers for broad distribution to anyone who may benefit from them. To that end, you may readily find that solutions to your current application needs have already been devised by others and made available to you for free via Zope's Web site. These kinds of products—from shared calendars or banner ad managers to entire e-commerce systems—provide even more plug-and-play functionality than, say, Perl scripts available at free CGI archive sites, because you won't need extensive customization to ensure viability with your system.

With Zope, you can also store multiple versions of documents and revert to an earlier copy as desired. You can also customize your Zope-based site's interface using templates in order to give different groups of users access to different administrative rights.

There's a dearth of formal documentation for using Zope, and the niftier features for customizing site management are currently still largely inscrutable to nonprogrammers. However, you'll find ready help from others in the Zope community for the asking; a series of mailing lists and archives appears at http://www.zope.org/Resources/MailingLists.

Free Zope Hosting

New Information Paradigms (NIP) offers a free hosting service for Zope-based Web sites. Although you won't be able to install any brand-new components, you'll gain access to the following products in your very own Zope installation:

  • All of the standard products included in the Zope distribution

  • Squishdot (for threaded discussions and news publishing)

  • TinyTable (for managing small amounts of tabular data)

  • Zwiki (a broad collaboration tool)

You can sign up for your free Zope site at http://www.nipltd.net/.

Getting Started

You can install Zope for the Windows, Solaris, or Unix platform. You choose from several types of distribution files when you download Zope from http://www.zope.org/Products/. Follow the links from http://www.zope.org/ to full installation instructions and links to download additional components.

Big spender: Digital Creations widely promotes its consulting services for helping companies get the most out of using Zope.

In addition to free Zope site hosting, NIP also offers professional Zope hosting for commercial applications and enterprise Zope hosting for custom combinations of hardware, software, and consulting services.

URL: http://www.zope.org/

Contact: support@digicool.com

Conversant

Macrobyte Resources's Conversant aims to provide flexible groupware functionality. It uses a "conversations" metaphor to group information on everything from traditional Web pages to threaded discussions to email list messages. Its interfaces for Web pages, newsgroup messaging, and email messaging are all plug-ins that can be swapped in or out without adversely affecting Conversant's core functionality.

Conversant's site administration is entirely browser-based. It uses a template-driven Web design system to ensure that all pages on your site adopt a consistent look-and-feel. Within the tools, you can create and utilize Cascading Style Sheets on your pages. You can edit and publish Web pages immediately within your Web browser, without needing to upload the pages when done.

You can assign administrative privileges to groups or individuals, and specify data sets that may or may not be seen by a given population. You can also delegate managerial responsibilities for content when you assign an "admin" to a given "conversation."

Macrobyte promotes using Conversant for such varied purposes as managing online catalogs to contract tracking to distance learning applications.

Free Conversant Hosting

You can host a single site at Free-Conversant.com for free, with the following specifications:

  • One site only

  • One newsgroup per site

  • One incoming and outgoing "email interface" for your site

  • Up to 25 members may subscribe to your site via email at one time

  • Sites are hosted at http://www.free-conversant.com/[your site name]/

Getting Started

When you sign up for a free site at Free-Conversant.com, you're asked for your name and email address. You'll then receive an email with your new password. You'll be asked to enter your email address, the password that was emailed to you, and the name of your new site. The name you choose for your site appears as a subdirectory of http://www.free-conversant.com/.

Next, you're prompted to choose from one of several types of Conversant sites: a regular Web site, a weblog (a news page with browsable archives), an events calendar, a family site, or a small business site. You can see samples of each type of site and find out what features are editable.

Big spender: Macrobyte also offers custom software development and Web consulting services.

At Free-Conversant.com, you can also sign up for a Virtual Space (a one-time $35 setup fee, plus a $25 per month subscription) for 50MB of site hosting space and two "conversations" (for example, a development testbed and a live production site). Basic Domain Hosting will run you a one-time $75 setup fee, plus $35 per month. This gains you 150MB of static server space, DNS service for domain name hosting, up to five sites (which can appear as subdirectories under the same domain name, and up to 500 subscribers to your site via email at one time.

URL: http://www.MacrobyteResources.com/Conversant/

Contact: http://www.macrobyteresources.com/contact.html

Manila

Manila is a Web-based application that lets groups of nontechnical users—think writers, editors, or traditional graphic designers—collaborate to manage a Web site jointly through an easy-to-use Web browser interface.

It's developed by Userland, which evolved its Frontier scripting language into a Web site rendering tool and content management system. The management system was Web-enabled and packaged as Manila to allow dynamic Web site creation.

Archiving versions of pages as you update them is remarkably easy. Manila uses a calendar metaphor for freezing your pages at the point in time when you're about to make new updates. You can return to archived versions by choosing the archive date in question from an administrative calendar.

You can incorporate Cascading Style Sheets or Javascript within your templates. Type changes are readily made on the fly by clicking through the "Edit this Page" button that appears wherever you can make updates in your Manila site.

Free Manila Hosting

Userland supports free hosting for Manila-based Web sites at ManilaSites.com, which has been in operation since December 1999 and sports over 20,000 sites.

Getting Started

If you want to try a free Manila-based site, visit ManilaSites.com to find a Web provider that can host your site for you. (Some of the service providers listed here are not accepting new accounts, which you'll discover only when you try to register). Once you have successfully registered, you will receive an account name and password from your system administrator in your email. After logging on, you should see the "Editors Only" menu at the top of the screen.

Big spender: If you're considering hosting a Manila-based site yourself, you'll need a Web server running under Windows or the Macintosh platform. Frontier is licensed on a subscription basis for $899 per year.

URL: http:// manila.userland.com/

Contact: http://manilanewbies.userland.com/

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