1. Introduction

This article introduces interactive web sites and their technology, also sometimes called “Web 2.0” by marketing people.

The new capability is that both you and the web site visitors can instantly write into the web site through the web browser, without having to use special web editing software.

Writing is subject to permissions that can differ for each person, group, web page, and kind of contribution. For example, you can allow some users to write new articles in certain areas on the web site, while others may only be given the right to add a comment to certain existing articles or no right to write at all.

2. The old way

You run a business? You need a web site!

The classic way to get one is to take an HTML editor, like Microsoft’s Expression Web, and write the pages. Then you want them linked to each other and to a common table of contents, so you do that too.

If you don’t feel like creating the web site yourself, because you’re not up to the task or you feel that specialists can make a better graphical and technical design, you’ll hire a web designer, who does it for you.

This procedure has a number of disadvantages.

  1. The web designer is either expensive or incompetent or, with a bit of bad luck, both.
  2. The web designer may have his peculiar ideas about what the links or menus should look like and how they should work. These ideas may be inconsistent with user expectations or, worse, with each other.
  3. The web site will be static. Whenever you want something changed, even the tiniest bit, you have to give another order to the web designer.
  4. Any additional function, like a picture gallery, a guest book, a poll, a feedback email form, will cost you and may have its own peculiarities.
  5. Typically your web visitors will only be able to read. They will not be able to comment on anything or discuss anything with you or among themselves.

3. Enter a Content Management System

The solution for all of these problems can be a Content Management System (CMS), which can provide some or all of the following functions and characteristics plus some more.

  • Ready made—doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.
  • Consistent looks—consistent user interface.
  • You can edit—you can change the content yourself without needing an HTML editor, an ftp client, or any other special software. All you need is what you already have—your web browser.
  • You can write—you can not only change existing content, but add new content as well.
  • Web pages—you can write and add entirely new web pages to your web site.
  • Automatic menus—there are automatic menus for some or all existing content.
  • Modifiable menus—you can modify the menus, if you like.
  • Automatic recent posts menu—users can call up a list of recent new posts to the CMS, latest at the top.
  • Various information blocks—similar to the recent new posts list there is a variety of ready-made information blocks like recent comments, new topics, active topics, new users, users currently online, and more. You can position these blocks on your web site.
  • Blogs—you and other users, whom you have given permission, can write their own, personal web log on the system.
  • Forums—all users or only certain permitted users can use forums to discuss topics.
  • Polls—you can open public polls and get good statistical feedback from your readers. You can even link to polls from a page and thus get direct statistical feedback from your readers.
  • Search—users can search the entire web site by key words or phrases. They can find all pages which they are allowed to read.
  • Contact forms—you and all permitted users can be reached by email through contact forms that don’t reveal the email address to the writer.
  • Automatic site map—the CMS will automatically generate a site map of your entire web site, so users can find everything quickly.
  • Themes, skins—you can select and offer different designs of the web site and allow users to choose between them. Each user will see the site dressed in his chosen design.
  • News aggregator—you can choose to let the system automatically and regularly gather selected news from various other web sources and display these news in a short form along with links to the source.
  • RSS feeds—users can subscribe to a wide range of choices within the CMS content and get all new content delivered to their computers automatically.
  • User authentication—you can require that some or all users log on and identify themselves before they can perform certain functions on the system. For example, you may allow everybody to read the public part of your web site, but before anybody writes, you can demand registration including an automatically validated email address.
  • Spam protection—you can activate various human tests with the user registration, such that automated spam bots cannot register and abuse your web site.
  • Access rights—you can close parts of the web site to the public. For example, you can use certain forums exclusively for internal discussions with your employees or others for discussions with particular suppliers or customers. The CMS will show only those parts of the web site to each user to which he has rights.
  • Feature choice—you can elect to disable or not install almost all of the above functions, if you don’t need them. You can thus taylor the CMS to your individual plans and needs.
  • Expandability—a good CMS can have add-on modules installed that provide additional functions, such as a web shop including connections to payment systems or many other functions.
  • Integration with your existing web site—you don’t have to give up your existing web site. In fact it can coexist with the CMS. Both can even use the same domain name to provide continuity to your users.

What you can see from this list is that it would be near-impossible for any web designer to give you the same rich set of capabilities without using a Content Management System. For most web sites, particularly smaller ones, a CMS is the only good way to go.

4. The downside

Is there any downside with going the CMS way? Let’s look at some possible shortcomings.

  1. No complete freedom of design.True, but this cuts both ways. The consistent look to the user is more of an advantage than a limitation.
  2. Must learn how to use the CMS.True, but any good CMS is far easier to use than a web editor. Changing text is very easy.
  3. Requires attention.True, but most of the effort is dealing with web visitors. You can’t have it both ways. If your web site is to be interactive, you have to interact.However, you can delegate much of the effort to a good administrator, who will work with your users and ask for your attention only when really needed, for example, when somebody asks a question that only you can answer.

5. Yes, I want one!

There are many different Content Management Systems. The most popular one is WordPress, a small single-user blog. It may be sufficient for a one-man company, if forums and most of the other capabilities are not needed.

On the other end there are big and complex Content Management Systems like Typo3, which allow a fair freedom of design, but are expensive and difficult to install, maintain, and use.

Somewhere near the top is a very capable, yet easy to use and intelligently designed open-source, i.e. free, CMS named Drupal. That is the one you are looking at now, because this article has been written and published on a Drupal site.

This study, conducted by IBM, also selected Drupal after comparing several top Content Management Systems: Using open source software to design, develop, and deploy a collaborative Web site

If you like to see another web site, set up and operated by me and based on Drupal, please have a look at the ATE web site or at the web site of the White House

Copyright © 2002-2010 Hans-Georg Michna