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What Is Content Management?

More than just a buzzword, content management solutions (a very broad category of software) help to fill the gap between building the site and keeping the site's content current. Individuals or businesses that contract to have a web site built are usually focused on getting the site up and running. They forget to take into account that once the site is up, they need to maintain the information contained within that site. Can you imagine a news site that has articles and events from two months ago? Or a cosmology site that still claims the Earth is at the center of the universe? As funny (or incredulous) as these examples are, sites such as this do exist (although I think that most cosmologists would agree that the Earth is not the center of the universe). The problem is that once the site is built and its creators have gone, content owners typically don't have the skills to maintain the site. Further, WYSIWYG tools like FrontPage or DreamWeaver often carry a learning curve that most business users don't want to tackle, and that may even be harmful to the site design. (I'm sure that the developers in the audience can probably think of an example where an inexperienced user hurt the design with one of these tools.)

Content management starts with the idea that two different groups of people will be working on a site; we'll call them site builders and content contributors. The site builders represent the various disciplines that are required to build the structure, navigation, user experience, and so on. The content contributors are charged with the responsibility of "publishing" the raw information. Content management solutions bridge the gap between these two camps by allowing site builders to create the "templates," within which the content contributors place the "substance."

What's the Basic Concept?

Most content management solutions work on the basic principle of reusable objects within templates. Simplistically, a template standardizes page construction. Take for example the page shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 This is Plural's service offering page within their web site.

If we look at this web page in the context of a template, we see (simplistically) a branding and global navigation area at the top, a section navigation menu on the left, and the content in the middle. Figure 2 shows a logical drawing of this template.

Figure 2 This simple page schematic shows the "components" of the template.

In this case, the template consists of a collection of components—the branding/navigation and the content.

Building with Components

Most object-oriented programmers are accustomed to using components (objects) to build applications; using a content management solution to build a web site is very similar. Using the example described previously, a page template is a collection of components, each having content. Each component then contributes its content to the overall end page (that is, the web "page" that the end user sees when visiting the site). Keeping those definitions in mind, if we give each of these components an identity and then build other page templates referencing these identities, we can create a site made up of various templates that reference common components, each containing content that's contributed to each end "page."

Once we've built the components and assembled the page templates, site maintenance is a snap. Imagine being able to globally change the logo or title portion of all of your pages—without having to edit each page individually. This concept, while simplistic, is an incredibly powerful tool for managing medium to large sites. Suppose that Yahoo! wanted to change its identity. Editing each page would take far more time than is practical. However, by implementing a content management solution, the Yahoo! designers would simply have to change the templates on which the pages are built—or, more ideally, change the logo in one place and have the change cascade throughout the site. While Yahoo! may have thousands of pages, the templates that create each of these pages probably could number in only the tens.

Workflow

What is workflow? Workflow is the process of creating, editing, and approving content that ultimately gets published to the web. In the same way that content management empowers the content contributors to easily add, edit, and delete content on the web, the workflow component of content management allows for the validation of what will be published.

Internet sites, by definition, are very public. Therefore, it's important that the right people participate at the right time within the content/web site production cycle. Prior to content management, there was always a group that acted as the intermediary; they were responsible for "publishing" any new content through the web. If legal approvals were required, for instance, it was largely a paper process that involved printing out the content, passing it around for review, and then manually incorporating any changes back into the HTML. While this method allowed for the proper review of the content, it was also a very slow and labor-intensive process. When you implement a content management solution with workflow features, however, a lot of this work can be streamlined and/or automated.

Using the workflow features of a content management solution, the time-consuming, often flawed manual approval process can be improved dramatically. For example, if someone in the marketing department wants to update a product description on the web site, they simply enter the change into the content management tool. For that change to show up on the live web site, various individuals within the company must also review, edit, and approve that content. Therefore, after the initial change has been implemented, the marketing manager submits the content to workflow. Once that's done, the content management system can automatically notify a manager or someone with editorial power to review the changed content.

In this example, someone in the legal department probably needs to review the content to be sure that the new text doesn't run counter to any agreements and/or laws; however, the legal review may only be a non-editorial review—any changes that need to be made are likely to be done back in marketing. The beauty of this process is that no paper has changed hands, notifications are automatic, and the content management system maintains the current version while the revision makes its rounds. Once all of the edits and/or approvals have been instituted, the content management solution simply publishes the changes. The best part is that this is just one simple example of what's possible; most content management solutions allow for very complex business rules to be automated in the workflow process.

What Content Management Is Not

Often content management is erroneously lumped together with personalization. Personalization is the association of content with either an individual or a group. While content management is necessary for personalization, personalization is not necessary for content management. In an ideal world, a site would first implement a content management solution and then integrate a personalization engine such as Net Perceptions, Microsoft's Commerce Server 2000, or BroadVision One-To-One Enterprise.

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