It seems much longer, but it was not that many years ago when it became necessary for even small, non-technical companies to have a respectable Web site in order to be taken seriously in the marketplace. Furthermore, while a few nicely laid out screens of mostly text was considered to be a respectable site when the Web was getting started, today's larger companies often require hundreds or thousands of professionally designed pages of dynamic content, with rich graphics, audio, and video material and considerable interactivity. Creating and managing that much content and designing it in a way that imparts a professional image and engages the audience can be a challenge.
To address that challenge, organizations can choose from a wide spectrum of Web authoring tools, ranging from the traditional, yet increasingly misnamed, HTML editors to sophisticated, database-driven Web content management applications. Dozens or even hundreds of offerings exist in each category, although only a few have achieved significant market recognition and penetration.
In the beginning, HTML editors were just that, little more than glorified text editors that provided some HTML syntax checking and possibly a link to a browser that could be used to preview Web pages after they were hand-coded. Today's HTML editors bear little resemblance to those earlier versions. Now, while the tools offer an option to look at and tweak the HTML code, Web page developers can use WYSIWYG graphical interfaces to design Web pages without ever seeing raw HTML, hence the assertion that the term "HTML editor" is no longer appropriate.
Dreamweaver, GoLive, and FrontPage all help you maintain a consistent look and feel throughout your Web site via their support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and templates. CSS are independent files that contain default definitions for fonts, colors, and other design attributes. You can use CSS to define defaults for various page elements such as body paragraphs, headings, links, and so on. Once you have created a style sheet, all of your Web pages can link to it. If your organization wants to alter its image and, for example, change the fonts or text colors on its Web site, you can simply update the style sheet to change the look of all pages that reference it. Since style sheet definitions are applied by the browser, there is no need to re-edit the individual pages. All changes will be reflected automatically on all associated pages as soon as the new style sheet is uploaded to the Web site.
Templates further increase the ability to ensure Web site consistency, while eliminating the need for page developers to recreate and reposition any elements that are common to some or all pages. A template identifies areas such as, for example, a top menu bar, a table of contents sidebar, and a company logo, which should appear in the same place on every page throughout a Web site. The template also defines areas that will include the variable portions of each page. When designers employ an HTML editor to create a new page, they can specify which template to use. The common elements and style defaults will then be included on the page automatically.
Features such as CSS and template support can simplify the process of ensuring design consistency across a site, but HTML editors alone do not enforce consistency. The tool typically does not force the user to employ a particular style sheet or template. Therefore, the enforcement of design standards must be achieved through policy rather than technology.
All of the products offer a library of pre-built Web designs that can help you create a professional-looking site, provided you are willing to use a design that does not uniquely reflect your organization's image. However, even with these templates, people lacking extensive design skills tend to apply a heavy hand when inserting text and graphics into the variable areas of the template. The result may look amateurish despite being based on a professional design.
One of the areas where the tools differ is in their integration with other products. Understandably, Microsoft FrontPage offers tighter integration with other Microsoft Office applications than do its competitors. Macromedia Dreamweaver is ahead of the competition when it comes to working with Macromedia Flash and Fireworks. And Adobe GoLive offers tighter integration with and optimization of Adobe Acrobat PDF files.
The Case for Web Content Management
Before you start to evaluate HTML editors, first consider another question: Should you use an HTML editor at all? Web content management, which is a subset of a broader product class, enterprise content management, offers an alternative that is more robust, more flexible, and, in the long run, maybe more cost-effective.
"There are two ends of the spectrum that we see as tactics for dealing with this need [for Web content development]," said Lou Latham, an analyst at Gartner, Inc. "One is to have your Webmaster do all of your editorial work and essentially tie up that resource with stuff that could be done down at the business unit simply because the Webmaster has access to the tool. And, in most cases the tool of choice for page layout is Dreamweaver. The other end of the spectrum, which is equally a worst practice, is to give everybody a copy of, typically, FrontPage--because most people can't handle Dreamweaver--and let them go at it.
"What we see as the real solution to this is a content management system where the content authors deal with the content as pure text, frequently in Word form. It then all flows through templates that are created by the IT department and reused indefinitely."
As a June 19, 2003, Gartner Research Note authored by Latham points out, after implementing a content management solution, "IS organization staffs are freed to pursue development projects and other high-value work."
Latham estimates that, overall, about one third of companies are using content management, with the number being even higher, approximately two thirds, at high-end companies.
The features available in Web content management products vary considerably. In fact, there is no hard-set definition of what constitutes Web content management. At a minimum, it is a database-driven approach to deploying Web content. Yet, content management goes beyond traditional databases. Databases have generally been very good at managing "structured data" (numbers and well-defined text fields) but weak at working with "unstructured data" that does not have a predefined form or predictable values. Content management deals with both.
Content management also goes beyond traditional document management. Documents imply static content in textual and graphical form. In contrast, content management products store, organize, and disseminate constantly evolving content that includes a rich set of media, including sound and video, in addition to the traditional text and graphics.
As the name implies, Web content management systems work with content, not Web pages. Rather than Web pages being created coincident with the underlying content as is the case with HTML editors, the content management software assembles Web pages at the time they are requested by a browser. It does so by merging the requested raw content with predefined templates that are also stored in the Web content management system's database.
Comprehensive Web content management software typically supports some level of workflow management. Several people may contribute to a single content item. To manage this process, the software may offer the means to lock content while someone is working on it, thus avoiding the contention that may otherwise occur when multiple authors attempt to update the same content simultaneously. The software may also provide the facility to route content from one author to another as it is being developed.
Workflow management can also support and enforce a structured approval process. Some organizations require a hierarchy of approvals for Web content. Workflow features can facilitate this by routing content to the first approver after the content creators complete their work. The software then routes the item to the next mandated approver only after the preceding person in the chain signs off on it. Content is made available for display on the Web only after all designated approvals are received.
Depending on the package, content management software may also include built-in modules to easily incorporate common Web features such as online surveys, email subscription lists, forums, storefronts, shopping carts, and so on.
Most of the very high-end Web content management products are not standalone products. Rather, they are part of broader enterprise content management systems. The leading vendors in this category include Vignette, Hummingbird, Open Text, Interwoven, and IBM. Below that level, there are literally hundreds of products with varying degrees of capability. The products on the lower tiers generally offer fewer and/or less-powerful features, typically at a significantly lower price.
Making the Choice
When organizations choose HTML editors over Web content management, sticker shock is often the primary reason. At time of writing, the list price for a single copy of either Dreamweaver or GoLive was $399, and FrontPage sold for $199. Volume licensing can reduce the cost per seat. In contrast, you should expect to spend five figures, and possibly well into six figures for larger enterprises, to buy and implement comprehensive Web content management systems.
While the high Web content management price tag scares off many organizations, it often should not. Cost is only half of the cost/benefit equation. The other half, the benefit, may significantly outweigh the cost.
The June 2003 Gartner Research Note cited above states, "Reporting tools and templates in WCM [Web content management] systems can reduce Webmaster staffing requirements by 50 percent to 75 percent. Templates, in particular, enable business users to post content without regard for its layout or format, or the design of the page around it. This ease of use increases the number of documents and business processes that the enterprise can migrate to the Web, and reduces operational document costs (such as printing, shipping, and postage) and non-document costs (phone and fax bills). The more workers, suppliers, and customers make use of the Web, the more these savings will add up to outweigh costs." The document suggests that Web content management can pay for itself in two years.
Modern HTML Editors Add Oomph
While the gap between the capabilities of HTML editors and Web content management software is and will remain wide, the vendors of HTML editors are not standing still. Some have added features that begin to address those deficiencies that lead organizations to adopt Web content management. For example, Macromedia and Adobe, recognizing both that there is a need to perform authoring and editing outside the Webmaster community and that their Dreamweaver and GoLive products have little traction beyond that community, introduced Macromedia Contribute and Adobe Co-Author.
Contribute and Co-Author allow Webmasters to develop Web pages, but then give departmental contributors the ability to use a familiar word processing interface to edit just the text portions of the page. Both products allow designers to lock down particular portions of a page to protect the overall design.
Contribute is a separate product from Dreamweaver, but a Contribute license also includes the latest update to Dreamweaver, allowing Webmasters to administer full sites. Licenses can be bought in single or multi-packs. Licensing for Adobe's Co-Author is somewhat different. A GoLive license includes one Co-Author license, but you can also buy standalone Co-Author licenses for each content author who does not need the full GoLive product.
HTML editor vendors are also starting to implement features, such as page check-in/check-out, that, even though they do not drive workflow, can prevent the problems that crop up when several people are simultaneously involved in Web page creation and approval.
While HTML editors will likely never offer all of the flexibility and end-user ease-of-use of a full content management solution, as they add more functionality, including integration with back-end databases, ERP systems, and front-end Web services products, the gap between the two will continue to narrow.
Strategy Trumps Technology
Despite all of their powerful features, neither the most advanced HTML editors nor the most sophisticated Web content management applications are sufficient to optimize your Web site's ROI. Web authoring technologies are tools. Like any tools, they deliver optimal results only if you first have a clear understanding of your objectives and then use the technology efficiently and effectively to achieve those goals.
"If you don't get the strategy right, the best technology in the world will not save your Web site," remarked Terry Moshenberg, president of Moshenmedia, a Toronto, Canada-based firm that develops content-managed Web sites. "Technology is important, but it shouldn't be the starting point. Instead, your business strategy should serve as the roadmap for your Web strategy.
"Over-dependence on technology goes beyond just the tendency to ignore strategy. There is also a misconception that, with the right tools, expertise doesn't matter anymore. We have all probably seen the amateurish, cumbersome, and ineffective Web sites that result from that philosophy.
"There are people who have made a career out of understanding how to make Web navigation faster and more intuitive. Others have years invested in the training and experience that allows them to understand how to bring creative elements together and match colors and fonts to create professional, pleasing, and engaging Web sites. Even the best tools on the market do not eliminate the need for this expertise.
"It is important to engage the necessary skills and experience to get the Web strategy and design right well before you begin to create any actual pages. That design can then be enforced through templates that are used in HTML editors or content management software, eliminating the need for the design skills in the later content creation phases."
What's Right for You?
In the end, the choice between HTML editors and Web content management software is a business decision that you should tackle like any other business decision. The benefits must outweigh the cost by enough to provide an adequate ROI.
For a company with a small Web site and only one or two people feeding content to it, the benefits of Web content management likely will never be sufficient to justify its cost. In a larger firm, a return will be realized through more efficient use of Internet skills, reduced administration costs, and a richer experience for Web site visitors. Particularly large enterprises may see a payback on their investment in as little as a year or two.
However, as Moshenberg suggests, the technology should not be your first concern. Strategy must be paramount. And none of the available technologies can do much to help you with developing that strategy, nor are they a substitute for professional Web design.