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Check Under the Hood of Your Site

  |  August 17, 2001   |  Comments

Emily and Greg tell you why the people in your organization contributing to your Web site may be like marmots, those squirrel-like creatures in Sequoia National Park that apparently have a taste for car parts.

In Sequoia National Park in Central California, signs everywhere warn motorists of the marmots. These squirrel-like creatures apparently have a taste for car parts, particularly car wiring. They crawl up under your hood, enjoy the shade from the scorching sun, and nibble away. If you're not careful -- meaning if you don't check under the hood before you start the car -- you could end up blowing out your engine. The less-destructive marmots have hitched rides for hours to other parts of the state, holding on for dear life until they pull into a southern California garage.

We tell you this because we see a metaphor between marmots and the people in your organization who may be contributing to your Web site. By now, most companies have at least thought about ways to improve how they manage their Web site's content.

Company Web managers have realized the one or two junior staffers in the marketing department can't keep up with the Lucy-Ricardo-at-the-chocolate-factory pace of content from various departments onto the Web site. It's bad enough if you have one public Web site with one intended audience. But if you're like most middle-sized companies, you probably have portals for your target audiences, including the company intranet.

Content management allows employees -- the so-called "content experts" -- to contribute to the Web site. These people are closest to the needs of the customer and can identify the kind of information Web site users likely need. People in sales post the latest deals. The human resources staff updates the jobs and benefits pages. The public relations staff posts press releases. Investor relations posts the annual report.

By using this method of developing your Web site, you accomplish several things. You encourage company-wide ownership of the Web site. Your colleagues in other departments appreciate the work it takes to care and feed the site. You expand the Web site and enrich its content in ways that would be impossible if all the content flowed through one or two people. In other words, the site grows organically. People feel they're part of something. Everyone is happy.

But back to those marmots.

If left unchecked, your busy content contributors could be quietly chewing away at the wires under your site's hood. That is, without even knowing it, your content experts could be undermining the overall purpose for the Web site.

They could do this by posting content that is inappropriate. We don't necessarily mean the egregiously inappropriate posting of pornographic material on your company's Web site. That's the stuff everyone is afraid of but rarely -- if ever -- happens. Perhaps they're not writing the content in a manner that is appropriate for the audience. Are they using internal lingo or industry terminology that users will find undecipherable at best, a turnoff at worst? Are they posting content that users will find useful, or are they just spewing off and pontificating about the grandeurs of the company without adding value for your visitors?

Your content contributors could also be undermining your Web site just by going along for a free ride -- they hide under the hood but rarely contribute to the progress of the site. They don't add or update content. They figure most people are so busy with their own little piece of the site that no one is looking -- that is, no one but us customers!

The third type of "sabotage" takes place when your content contributors don't maximize the content management system. Perhaps the best use for the capabilities that content management software packages offer is to leverage content from throughout your site to create a cohesive package of information for your user, in accordance with his or her interests. It's not quite personalization -- that's delivered separately with application servers -- but it lays the groundwork for it.

In other words, let's say someone in the public relations department writes a news release about a new product line for the fall, the product manager develops a specs document for the product line, and the sales department puts together some information on it. Each of these departments could be working diligently in its own section of the Web site. Yet the visitor to the site needs to track down all the content unless there's some kind of dynamic meta-tagging and indexing schema that would compile that information and present it together.

Before you decide that content management is the solution to your problems, you have to consider the human (a.k.a., marmot) elements. Create specific business rules for contribution to the site. Think through how the different areas of content can work together and create a richer experience for those going to your site. Train your content contributors on the expectations of the company. Train them how to write, too.

And now and then, look under the hood to see what's there.

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Greg Sherwin and Emily Avila

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