The Internet is to content what DTP was to the church newsletter. Just as eager parishioners went crazy designing ridiculous layouts for misspelled text and badly written articles, so companies put out content on their Internet sites without much thought for its quality.
It need not be like this. Content management tools can be used to ensure that text is created and updated in a structured way, check Web sites for bad links, and ensure that graphics, audio and video clips are stored properly for later retrieval.
One of the main goals of content management, other than ensuring the structure and quality of text on a site, is to enable content to be exchanged between different parties. It let's visitors find data easily on a Web site and make it as relevant as possible to them. Consequently, many content management systems also deal with content personalisation.
A recent survey produced by the National Opinion Poll (NOP), sponsored by content management software supplier Mediasurface, interviewed 104 companies to find out whether they thought there was any duplication of information across their Web sites. A high percentage of companies report that their Internet sites are important marketing tools, with 52% placing the greatest importance on the quality of content on the site.
Of the sample, 47% have no content management or personalisation software in place and, of those, 75% say they would like to publish content to the site directly.
In spite of the proliferation of multimedia content on the Web, text is still the most popular form. But it is also one of the most difficult to manage.
Just as in the publishing industry, text can be misspelled, badly constructed or inaccurate. Problems can emerge when text is created by a number of people from different departments, all of whom will have different writing styles and levels of literacy.
Building editing business processes traditionally associated with the publishing sector can help alleviate this problem, says Nick Gregory, vice-president of marketing at content management software firm Mediasurface. "Digital ink never dries. It has to be constantly rotated, so you have to think about a lot of authors for content," he says.
Many of the better content management systems will make this process non-technical, building workflow processes into the system so that business managers can enter information and then have it sent to an editor who collates and checks it. Such systems can then be used to assign rights to specific people. A company may not want to let an author change content once it has been posted on the site, for instance.
Another step in the content management chain that many people ignore is localisation. English may be the most widely spoken language in the world but there are plenty of potential customers speaking other tongues. Any good strategy for managing content on a global medium takes this into account.
Gregory works with translation companies that take content from one repository and translate the information for clients. Machine translation (the automatic translation of text using computer software) is faster than manual translation but the text is a literal translation. This produces the sort of copy that is often found in manuals for video recorders that have been translated from Japanese.
Of course, not all of the information on a Web site or intranet necessarily comes from the firm that owns it. Syndication is big business and companies, such as Newsedge, a firm that has been aggregating content for 12 years, will sell it to you.
"It is important inside a big corporation or bank to reduce the amount of information to the most relevant stories available on a particular subject," says Jon McNerney, senior international vice-president at Newsedge. The company takes roughly 100,000 news articles per day and puts them into a repository, where it can filter duplicates and then deliver customised news to corporate clients based on their predefined profiles.
But as the amount of content grows, finding what you need on a Web site can be difficult. One way around this is to design the site to be intuitive.
In May last year, the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the initial version of its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines recommendation (www.w3.org/WAI/). This set out a clear set of expectations for the design of Web interfaces that would make the navigation of information simpler for users. Concepts in the specification include the use of style sheets to separate the content's look and feel from the content itself. This lets designers define how content will appear on the page simply by changing a few central parameters, without having to make any changes to the actual content.
Search engines are another good way to keep data accessible. End-users can find it daunting when there is a vast amount of information on the site. The AltaVista search engine gives people the ability to extract information from Internet and intranet sites, and also includes a developer kit so that companies can create interfaces from the search engine in their own Web applications.
This also raises the issue of dynamic content. A lot of information on Web sites is generated from databases, and is therefore not stored on static HTML pages within an organisation. It can be difficult to manipulate this content if it is only displayed in response to a query. But as many people are now accessing such data through the use of Active Server Page and Java Server Page scripts, manipulation commands can be written using these scripting languages.
The AltaVista search engine has the ability to access this data. It can be set up to perform regular queries on data, say every 15 minutes, so that when an end-user performs a content search, up-to-date database content is included in the results.
The Extensible Markup Language (XML) is another useful means of handling content. The language allows you to define what the data in a document means, rather than simply how it should be displayed.
Using languages written in XML, it is possible for developers to produce content that can be syndicated and searched for more easily, as a search engine can know what relevance the data has by reading the tags associated with it. If, for example, a user is searching for news articles marked up using an XML-based language focusing on the news industry, they can specify that they want to search for news articles with the tags "politics" and "US". This will ensure that when they search for "George Bush" they don't get back articles about bush fires or bushels of wheat.
XML can also be used to ensure that content is displayed in different ways depending on what sort of medium it is viewed on, such as a PC browser, PDA or Wap phone. And browsers can also be used to interpret instructions within XML code to display content in a particular way. An example is drawing a chart based on a set of numbers stored in an XML-related format.
Managing content is not simply a case of ensuring that it is spelt correctly and slapping onto a Web page. It entails careful attention to localisation, accuracy, and searchability, along with some innovation in the area of content display, and the handling of dynamic information.
If firms invest in the right tools and skills for the job, their Web sites will become a frequent point of return for visitors, hopefully increasing sales into the bargain.
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This was first published in December 2000