How to Build a Small-Business Web Site, Part 8: Content Management Simplified
Having a Web site for your business is great, and selling goods through that site is even better, but the content on the site must be kept up to date or it's as good as worthless. There are a variety of content-management tools available to meet your budget and needs.
03/19/09 4:00 AM PT
This is the eighth in an ongoing series on building a Web site for your small business. Part 1 looks at essential elements of a business Web site. Part 2 offers basic site design guidelines. Part 3 tackles some advanced design issues. Part 4 examines social media tools for building traffic. Part 5 compares outsourcing against doing maintenance work in-house. Part 6 offers tips on marketing your site. Part 7 covers analytics for measuring effectiveness.
You might think of content management as a tuning-up process for your Web site so it's always running in top form. For small-business owners, however, keeping up with the job of content management can be a trying exercise they would just as soon leave at the bottom of the to-do pile.
Without change, though, a Web site can languish and simply not do the job it's supposed to. With a possible few exceptions, Web content needs to be looked at on a regular basis and updated to make sure the information is current and that the right messages are getting to the right people. After all, no one wants to keep reading the same blog you posted six months ago, or find out that a featured product they happened to see on your site is no longer available?
According to Darren Guarnaccia, vice president for Sitecore, a Web content management system software developer, the act of building, designing and writing copy for your site is just a starting point. The real heart of what you do with it is the content management piece. "The fundamental power of Web content management is that it continuously makes your Web site better," he told TechNewsWorld.
Tools of the Trade
There is a wide range content management tools that can do a lot of the behind-the-scenes thinking for you, as well as make the job of keeping up to speed easier and more efficient. And they seem to come in all shapes and sizes to suit different business needs.
What you decide to use -- whether it's free/low-cost content management services and tools to cover the basics (e.g. Microsoft Office Live Small Business, Intuit Websites, WordPress, Joomla, Drupal), or a full-blown application with all the bells and whistles -- largely depends on the size and scope of your site.
The first thing to consider is how much content you have on your site and how often you need to update it. In other words, how big of a job is it going to be to keep content up to date and consistent?
Another consideration is whether your business operates on long or short cycle times. "The longer it takes for someone to make a buying decision, the more time you have to incrementally change content to move that opinion," Guarnaccia added. "A Web site can do a lot of the same things as a salesperson in helping sway opinion and increase buy-in."
Getting to that point starts with understanding your outcomes, he advised. "People talk far too much about tactics of management versus the outcomes," he said. A good way to find that out is analytics, including campaign tracking tools. These can help you test and measure different content options as you go so you can understand what types of changes you need to make.
There are also some common errors that can quickly turn good content management intentions into very bad practices. One of the biggest is not involving people who edit or maintain the site into the decision-making process.
Another is "too much workflow" as Guarnaccia put it. "In content management, less is more. It's best to have content approval go through only one or two decision makers to ensure consistency."
Usability can be a huge stumbling block for small-business owners with relatively few IT skills. One of the biggest pitfalls is having a system that's so complex users eventually refuse to work with it.
"Ideally, when working with a content management system, you should be able to open content and edit it simply," Nicole Denil, vice-president of sales and marketing for Sitemasher, a platform for building and managing Web sites, told TechNewsWorld. "You should be able to use drag and drop tools and not have to install software or database tools. With what's available, anyone can make a sophisticated site without being a programmer."
If you don't watch out, it's also easy to lose control of your content. Consistent branding and messaging are key to a successful Web site, so it's important to restrict the ability to make certain changes (e.g. to brand elements such as formats and logos) while separating the rest of the content for editing.
Then there is the people factor. Measures also need to be put in place to control what people can change content and the content resources they can choose from. At the same time, "Content management systems need to easy and accessible by the Web site owner so they can update it anytime they need to," advised Denil.
Small businesses with relatively static sites with only a few pages to manage would likely do fine using free applications with templates, said Shawn Moore, CEO of Solodev, an Internet management software developer. For those with more complex needs, getting a more robust content management system is well worth the investment.
There is, however, a vast difference in functionality and ease of use. To make sure you get the best bang for your buck, Moore offers up some words of advice on what to ask for when you're shopping around:
- Get all the specifics on licensing and maintenance fees. Also check their software upgrade schedule and average service response times. Are implementation and training included in the cost?
- Does the system allow you the freedom to work with your own design, or do you have to design around certain restraints (e.g. columns, headers/footers)?
- Does it include additional components such as calendars, press release managers, polling, etc.? Does it include built-in real-time analytics and SEO (search engine optimization) tools?
- Does it include dynamic navigation to allow you to update navigation across multiple pages? "It sounds simple, but it's a big time saver," said Moore.
- Does the system offer CSS (Cascading Style Sheets)-based design so your site can be accessible to other types of media?
- Does it archive your changes?
- Can you manage multiple sites through a single interface?
- Can you customize permission setups that suit your organizational structure so you control who can access and use the application?
- Is it scalable -- can you add modules as you grow?
- Who controls the server? "Companies should be protective of their Web sites and play an active role in the content management set up," Moore explained. "The best option is to co-manage the server with the provider."
"At the end of the day, content management should be easy to do for any SMB," Guarnaccia said. "It shouldn't require a degree in rocket science or IT intervention. If you do it right, it should all be dead simple."