I’ve been publishing Fitzroyalty for over three years now and have been writing for, editing and publishing websites for universities, government departments and businesses since 1997. In this time I have taught myself some html, written functional specification documents, gained experience in graphic design, developed content management plans, become competent in search engine optimisation (SEO), designed taxonomies, learned a bit of php and css, and trained lots of people in these and many other skills.
In summary, I’ve learned lots of useful web related stuff, and I’m often asked to give advice about starting a website or blog. As my previous post ‘a beginner’s guide to blogging ethics and strategy‘ was well received, I thought it would be helpful to examine another aspect of the decision making process around starting a site – how do you actually do it? What platforms, tools, software and hardware do you need? Where do you go for advice? How do you know if you are getting good advice?
It’s fabulous to see sites I have worked on, or provided advice for, develop a depth of content and build an audience, and it is disappointing to see others decline through neglect or incompetence. It’s also great to see new sites emerge, to learn from their innovations and to learn from the mistakes made by others.
I will provide examples of the concepts I discuss using current Melbourne sites and blogs. It is not my intention to specifically criticise the sites or their owners or creators. I will endeavour to focus on the functionality of these sites to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to web development, design and publishing in order to arrive at some best practice principles.
Research and planning
If you’re starting a review site for a popular topic, such as food, music or art, consider what has already been done and what you plan to achieve. Is there a niche to fill? Will you embrace a distinct approach that will be of value to your audience? Many hobby blogs fail after months or even weeks as the novelty wears off and the amount of time it takes to maintain becomes clear.
If you’re building a site as a business, what is your business model? If it is advertising, is your content going to be distinct enough to attract an audience? Will your audience tolerate the advertising? Advertising alone is a weak and unreliable business model.
Site or blog?
This is now a meaningless question because the distinction between the two no longer exists in terms of the platform (it may still have some meaning in terms of informal chatty content as opposed to more formal business content). Free open source content management systems (CMSs) like WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are the platforms on which sites and blogs are made. Their sophistication and complexity means that it is possible to make what looks like a traditional ‘blog’ (chronological posts in vertically descending order) or a ‘static site’ (homepage and various other static pages) from each of these CMSs.
Hosted or self hosted?
A self hosted site means you buy hosting through a hosting provider (server space which stores your site and makes it live on the internet), buy a domain name and attach it to your site, and install the software platform of your choice to build and publish your site with.
If all of this sounds too hard already, and you really want to do is publish content without worrying about hosting your own platform or paying for anything, then a free hosted blog from Blogger or WordPress is for you. Each has its good and bad points. It’s easy to set one up, so try both and get a feel for the interface and the layout and determine which you prefer.
Don’t use LiveJournal or TypePad. These are antiquated platforms lacking basic features, such as the ability to make RSS or Atom feeds for categories or tags. Don’t use newer free hosted platforms like Tumblr for the same reason.
How to choose a hosting service
This usually comes down to features and cost. You’ll want a host that offers the C Panel server admin interface and the latest technical features, such as php v5. You may want shell access to the server and the ability to run cron jobs.
How to choose a content management system
The question is not ‘should I use a content management system?’ Developing a site by writing static html pages is archaic, inefficient and fails to deliver essential tools and functionality. All sites and blogs should be built using free open source content management systems.
The question of which content management system to use will depend on the answers to many other questions. Drupal and Joomla are not necessarily better for large complex sites. WordPress is not necessarily better for relatively simple blogs. The choice of CMS should be determined based on who will be using it.
Does your publishing team include technical and creative people? Do you have developers or programmers who can make custom changes to php and css? Or are you an individual who has to do everything?
If it is the former, Drupal and Joomla may work for you, as you will have experts to manage them. As a non-technical content manager these platforms are awkward, counter-intuitive and unnecessarily difficult to use.
If your concept of web publishing is more like WYSIWYG word processing, then WordPress offers a far more intuitive, user friendly interface for non-technical designers, publishers and content creators. Using it is more likely to enable you to construct an accessible, user friendly site for your audience.
How much work do you want to do on graphic design?
Drupal and Joomla are comparatively difficult to customise visually. WordPress is far easier and thousands of free ‘themes’ or templates are available for you to install and use, meaning you can spend less time working on the graphic design of your site.
How much work do you want to do on platform / structure customisation, or ‘look and feel’?
Drupal and Joomla are comparatively difficult to customise structurally. WordPress is far easier and thousands of free ‘plugins’ and ‘widgets’ are available for you to install to add specific functions. Drupal and Joomla have fewer plugins available because their developer and user communities are smaller.
Embrace open standards
Choose a platform that enables the delivery of these standards:
- Metadata in the form of categories, tags or labels so you can build a taxonomy and from that a navigation structure
- RSS2 feeds
- Atom feeds
- Feeds for individual categories, tags or labels
- Commenting, including username, email address and URL
- Ensure your site works in all browsers
The power of syndication
Atom and RSS feeds separate the content from the formatting of a site and deliver the content in a stripped down minimalist format to readers via feed reading applications like Google Reader or Netvibes. The more content users consume, the more efficient they become at filtering it. Feed readers allow readers to skim or browse through the headlines of many sites quickly. Feed readers are an efficient tool for heavy content consumers.
The important concept to grasp is that a site is not a destination that audiences must visit. A site is a publishing platform that delivers content to readers in multiple formats for their convenience. Many will choose to use your feed and will rarely visit your site.
This has two important implications. First, wasting hours creating a graphic design for your site that most of your readers will never see is pointless. Second, a site built with a CMS that does not provide content feeds is as antiquated, useless and user unfriendly as an old school static site.
Audiences expect syndicated content
Experienced bloggers know that most of their audience (perhaps about 75%) consume their content not by visiting their site but by subscribing to their feed(s).
By default, Drupal and Joomla are not configured to deliver feeds, and this is a fundamental failing because many people will simply and ruthlessly decide that if you have no feed, then they will not read you.
WordPress automatically creates RSS feeds for your posts and comments, and you can also enable Atom feeds and include static pages as well as dynamic posts into your feeds.
I’m on the mailing lists of many galleries and organisations and these are excellent marketing tools, but I rarely visit their sites. The Sutton gallery in Fitzroy has a comprehensive site but no feeds and I get their content by email. Email lists can be tedious and time consuming to maintain, and some people don’t like signing up for things as they fear being spammed forever.
Subscribing to RSS allows readers to control their subscription, whereas having your details added to or removed from an email list is at the control of the list owner. I’ve had many frustrating experiencing emaiing organisations or businesses asking repeatedly to have my details removed from their lists and them failing to do it or taking several requests to do it. You can’t get spammed by RSS because it is self service – you can unsubscribe at any time.
Problems with bad designers
Here’s the site for High St Northcote (CMS unknown) produced by the Northcote Business Association. The content is not great, but then the sites for trader’s associations rarely are (look at the bad joke that is the Business on Smith St site). The main problem is the design, and the multiple click throughs required to actually get the RSS feed. A designer who can’t test their site and make it work in all the major browsers does not deserve to be paid.
www.highstreetnorthcote.com.au as viewed in IE v7 on a PC running Windows XP
www.highstreetnorthcote.com.au as viewed in Firefox v3 on a PC running Windows XP
Problems with Drupal
The sites of some excellent community organisations have been built on Drupal or Joomla and consequently have no feeds or offer only part of their content via feeds. There are many local examples. The Abbotsford Convent site, built on Drupal, has no feed. The C3 artspace in the Convent uses an external Blogger site, which has a feed, rather than relying on their part of the Convent site.
The Gertrude Association site, built on Drupal, originally had no feed and I strongly advised them to add one. They now offer a feed for their news, but the feed consists only of the post titles – the individual feed items don’t contain the content that exists on the site. In a feed reader they look empty.
Another site built by Infoxchange, Wired Community @ Collingwood, has no feeds visible on the homepage or on individual article pages, but when you click on a tag from an article, like ’employment’, suddenly a feed icon for the category appears. This is extremely poor design. Furthermore, the taxonomy has no relation to the navigation and the categories are not listed in a menu or anywhere on the homepage.
Problems with Joomla
The Craft Cartel site is built on Joomla and exibits similar problems to the Drupal sites discussed above. There’s no metadata and no feed for the news content on the homepage. The CMS has been used to create separate content sections – news on the homepage and a blog that only contains one post and does not include the news items. Only the blog has an RSS feed.
The information architecture and content management of this site are all wrong. All the content should be syndicated, and there’s no need to separate the site into a ‘static site’ style homepage and a ‘blog’ on the side.
Look at this site (made in Joomla) for the Victorian state MLC Inga Peulich. If you’re going to use an awful CMS like Joomla make sure it works in all the major browsers.
www.ingapeulich.org as viewed in IE v7 on a PC running Windows XP
www.ingapeulich.org as viewed in Firefox v3 on a PC running Windows XP
It’s smaller because it’s twice as wide – the CMS is not coded to work properly in browsers other than IE and it pushes the content in the middle over to the right because it cannot sit under the title bar.
Here’s the same error in the website of Yarra Trams, which does not say what CMS it uses, but it looks like Joomla. It’s been like this for years. Again, this image is much smaller because it’s twice as wide.
yarratrams.com.au as viewed in IE v7 on a PC running Windows XP
yarratrams.com.au as viewed in Firefox v3 on a PC running Windows XP
What do these sites have in common? They were all built by technical experts who appear fundamentally disconnected from the needs of content creators and audiences. The platforms used to create these sites may be convenient for programmers but they disempower content creators and alienate audiences.
You can’t subscribe to them, you can’t comment on them and you can’t even view them properly depending on what OS and / or browser you use. Fail. Fail. Fail.
How to avoid the website death spiral
A common situation I see repeatedly is non-technical managers or creative people accepting the advice of technical web developers without analysing or critiquing it. Programmers often understand nothing about content, communication strategies, marketing or audience behaviour. The techs give bad advice to the creatives who quickly get frustrated with the difficult technology they’ve been given. The techs are asked to return to fix and explain things and they bill more hours to do so.
The creatives experience more problems. ‘Why can’t it work like Illustrator or my MacBook Pro?’ they ask. The process is repeated until the creatives run out of money and give up. They neglect the site, which eventually fails and is deleted.
Most CMSs are designed by developers for developers to use, not for non-technical publishers to use. They’re not designed to be accessible to people who think in words and pictures, not in code. WordPress is the exception. If you use other design or publishing software, you should be able to work with WordPress. It is as flexible and powerful as other CMSs but is significantly easier to learn and to manage.
How to get good advice as a client
- Be realistic about your skills, abilities and requirements
- Separate wants and needs. Plan to develop a site in stages
- If you lack skills or confidence, don’t underestimate how struggling with technology will undermine your desire to create great content
- Take responsibility for your lack of technical understanding by learning new skills. Outsourcing the technical setup of your site to others is costly and inefficient and will eventually compromise your ability to publish your content
- Plan to become as independent from external consultants as possible
- Never trust developers to design information architectures, menus or taxonomies. Only you know what you want and need, and this will change over time. The platform should allow these to be changed dynamically
- Insist on open standards
- Insist on accessibility
- Insist on RSS and Atom feeds for all content
- Insist on metadata and tags
- Insist on browser neutrality
- Remember that you are not the audience. Your preferences are not their needs
How to give good advice as a consultant
- Try to understand your clients and question their needs, wants and abilities
- Be skeptical about their claims to be able or willing to master clunky content management systems like Drupal or Joomla
- Make an objective assessment of their technical abilities and offer a realistic and pragmatic strategy. This will most likely lead you to recommending WordPress for self hosted sites
- For beginners, suggest they start with a hosted site first so they can evaluate their needs and abilities. If they need to move to a self hosted solution later, they’ll come back to you
- Don’t recommend what you would choose for yourself. Recommend what is best for your client
- Plan for your own obsolescence
- Remember that you are not the client or the audience. Your preferences are not their needs