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    taming technology so you don't have to

the IT department

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A few weeks ago, I got a call from a small-business owner who had commissioned a website for his holiday property business.

With a basic design in mind he had contacted a developer in India to build his website for him in exchange for a few measly dollars.

After a few consultations over Skype, the final design was agreed and the business owner received two files by email. The first was a text file contaiing 'code' and other was the photograph he wanted on the site. Understandably, he had no idea what to do with these files. He knew that they had to be uploaded to his ISP somehow but wasn’t sure how to achieve that.

This made me think about the different ways a website can be built.

Normally when I create a new website for a client I automatically use a content management system such as Joomla or Drupal or even Wordpress rather than individual, static pages but, in truth, both methods are widely used and in the appropriate context each is perfectly valid.

Static Websites

A Static website is one in which the content (i.e. the readable bits) and the code that determines the layout of the page on the screen are stored as one or more data files on the server.

When an update is needed, the appropriate file or files must be edited directly, either on the site itself or by downloading into a word processor or text editor. Where the site comprises several linked pages, the relationship between them, must also be maintained so adding or removing pages may require updates to several of these files, which can prove challenging as the site grows in size and complexity.

Content Managed Websites

Invariably, the most important thing about a website for businesses is the content itself but how it appears to the reader or visitor will often determine whether or not that content gets read. It is crucial that it looks good and is easily readable on a variety of devices with different screen sizes or aspect ratios. Attempting to cope with all but the simplest of sites using static pages is at best counterproductive.

By separating the layout of the site from the content and treating each differently, a Content Management System makes the maintenance of a website much simpler. The layout part is known as a 'template' and these can be purchased pre-built from a variety of sources or can be created to reflect the business's branding. The content is usually stored in a database as plain or rich text and can often be created or updated by business users without intimate knowledge of the templates or any specialist expertise.

When a visitor accesses the site, the CMS merges the content from the database with the layout information contained in the template to provide the user with a view that is optimised for the particular device they are using at the time, be it PC, Phone or Tablet. Templates can also, if required, accommodate multiple languages and automatically use the one that matches the visitor's geographic location.

A major benefit of this approach is that content can be changed without modifying (deliberately or unintentionally) the layout of the site or individual pages. Conversely, when necessary, the layout can be changed without altering any of the content.

This approach allows the content provider to focus on what makes the site meaningful – the content, leaving the site structure, which changes much more infrequently, to the more experienced developer.

To Summarise

Static:

  • Quick and easy deployment for single page sites with limited functionality
  • Difficult to update for more complex sites (especially the site layout)
  • Too easy to introduce errors and content inconsistencies
  • Requires specialist knowledge of HTML and other coding forms
  • Limited features – multimedia content, site searching, user login, forums, mailing lists, and calendar features, etc. require custom code and are expensive to implement

CMS:

  • Easy content creation and maintenance using web-based administration functions
  • Low cost of implementation and fast system deployment of complex site structures
  • Use of pre-built ‘templates’ to provide professional 'look & feel'
  • Advanced functionality is easier to implement
  • Much easier to comply with standards and/or legislation
  • More difficult (though not impossible!) to “hack”

So, for a single page website (or a few simple pages) to act as a basic presence on the Web with only minor updates from time-to-time, a static page might be the answer. However, even then a CMS with either a purchased or home brewed template may be better choice and certainly the only choice for a more complex  site with images and multiple pages.

eek a mouse

About the Author:

John Sanderson is the Chief engineer at the IT Department, a division of Clantec Solutions Limited,
helping individuals and small businesses with their IT challenges.

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