Dynamic content

Web management tools give you the ability to bring your site to life

Static Web pages have been the focus of most agency Web projects, but dynamic content and interactivity are now on the agenda.

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1999 requires agencies to move citizen interaction online, where practicable, by October 2003.

In February, a Hart-Teeter Council for Excellence in Government report found that 64 percent of those surveyed now believe that e-government will have a positive effect, up from the 56 percent who had a positive opinion in a similar August 2000 survey.

The survey, at www.excelgov.org/techcon/0225poll/release.htm, also found that '70 percent of the public believe e-government will improve the ability of agencies on the front lines of domestic preparedness ... to coordinate an effective response to a public emergency.' What better way is there to share critical information quickly than via the Web?

Add the mandate to make online information available to everyone'to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998'and it's clear that agencies face significant challenges.

Web management must also deal with increasing demands for training and applications.
Web management includes:

  • Design and page creation

  • Usage monitoring

  • Content management and updates

  • System and site development and monitoring.

The accompanying chart includes a broad range of software in all four categories. But space limitations keep the chart from being inclusive. Some companies, such as IBM Corp., have many more products and services than we have room to list.

Evolved to simplicity

Today you can design and publish complex Web sites without looking at HTML code; basic page creation is no longer a code-intensive task. Even highly complex tasks such as content management are easier when you have the right tools.

But even though the basics have become simple, the challenge of dynamic content'using the Web for distributed applications and publishing real-time changes to databases'is another story entirely.

Some sites will always have mostly static, archival data on them, but more agency Web managers are being asked to deal with rapidly changing content.

Some Web sites act as front ends for databases that are already in use on local or enterprise networks. In other cases, content is produced specifically for a Web site. Most complex Web sites use a mixture of the two.

Your approach to managing content depends a great deal on the content source, but developers who are regularly updating information to the Web have several options.

The simplest approach is to replace entire Web pages with new content. But even when this is an acceptable option for a small or seldom-changed site, most webmasters will at least want to automate the offline page creation process.

In addition to straight database publishing, there are two basic ways to automate content creation.

The first method is to preprocess page content before uploading it to the server. For example, you might use Microsoft Word to create content and place links to Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, graphics or other Word items within the document. To manage this process you go to the Edit menu and open Links. Then select Update Now or, perhaps, Change Links.

Of course, using Word to create content for anything other than a basic Web site is not practical. There are a number of more sophisticated ways to preprocess content.

The big advantages of creating pages offline are that it's easier to manage security, the completed pages generally load much faster and the server load is considerably lightened.

The other basic content management technique also uses macros and hot links but places them on the server instead of in a local document that is uploaded as a finished page.

Server plug-ins and macros put dynamic links right in the HTML code. The server parses each page every time it is accessed, inserting the most current content each time.

Anyone who adds content must take care to keep the underlying data in exactly the same format at all times, or strange things could occur on the Web page.

Because such pages don't exist until after they are requested by a browser, this management method produces the most current content. But it's slow and requires a lot more server processor power. Under heavy loads, page creation slows to a crawl.

Loading pages

The key to content management is page-level versioning'making certain the site has the latest approved information. Every webmaster knows how complicated this can get, especially when document creation is a shared responsibility. With dynamic content produced by the server, it gets even more complex because versions of parts of each page must be managed.

Government managers are familiar with this scenario: A report needs so many approvals that it doesn't get published until the next administration. But when reports go up on the Internet, private inefficiency can become public embarrassment.

Web production demands that the approval process itself be streamlined, which generally means using management tools with specialized versioning features.

Web development has evolved in a few short years from hiring students to build pages, up to a complex, enterprise-level undertaking.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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