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Notes from the Technology Trenches - Web Site Management Software

By Roger V. Skalbeck, Published on July 14, 2000

Roger Skalbeck is the Technology Services Librarian and Webmaster at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, and he is a web committee member for the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.  Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or any other organization. This column, of course, is 100% free of any legal advice.

Managing Your Intranet or External Web Site

This month I’ve decided to stray a bit from the purely legal topics of technology issues, to focus generally on web site management.  Instead of going into detail about the various programs available, I’ll feature two programs of differing complexity, while presenting them in the context of wider site maintenance issues.

For those who have already settled on a program for site management, hopefully this column will suggest some ideas for how to plan for upgrades and ongoing maintenance.  For those who haven’t yet decided on what to use to manage a site, this should give you some ideas about where to start.  The programs referenced directly in this column are Microsoft’s FrontPage 2000 and Macromedia’s Dreamweaver 3.

Two Ends of the Site Management Spectrum (sort of)

On the entry-level side of the spectrum is Microsoft’s FrontPage 2000.  This has one of the easiest HTML editing interfaces that I have seen, and it provides a very intuitive “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) page creation tool.  Some of the best features of this are in the area of site creation and management.  Microsoft bundles a handful of “themes” as a part of the interface, so that you can quickly set up a site that has an adequate and uniform interface replete with common graphics, backgrounds and borders.  Beyond that, the program functions as an interface to a file management system, and it has an invaluable facility for checking the validity of links to external Internet sites, which can then be updated site-wide.

One complaint that some people have had about FrontPage is that it messes with your HTML code you create or import, not allowing you to have absolute control about how pages are rendered.  The 2000 version has made improvements, but there are still some strange things that FrontPage can do with your code.  For a program that provides for what many would term more “pure” HTML, consider using Macromedia’s Dreamweaver 3 to manage your site.  There is a steeper learning curve to using Dreamweaver, and the extensive tool set and features place this if not opposite, then at least a distance apart from FrontPage in terms of pure ease of use.  Nonetheless, I found it intuitive in the way it is organized, and it does indeed give you explicit control over your HTML code.

As a nice feature for publishing your site, Dreamweaver integrates the file transfer functions directly as a part of the defining a site, which can be developed on a local drive or networked file server.  In helping maintain the versions of files, Dreamweaver allows you to check out files for editing, and it also provides you with a useful interface for uploading them, where contents can be easily compared and synchronized.

For more complex tasks, Dreamweaver provides facilities for the following kinds of site and page management tasks:  HTML validation and clean up, explicit control of fonts and style sheets as well as the automation of mouse rollovers and similar tasks.  Beyond that, the editor program allows you roll back numerous page edits, one step at a time, and you can preview pages in multiple browsers without having to first save your file.

Site Managment is Much More than Just HTML

In order to manage a site well, you will want to have tools that do more than just help you write HTML code.  You want to have a tool that will help you see your site visually, edit elements common to many pages at once, and you want to have a program that will help to make sure that you are creating links that actually work.

One way in which you can design a site that is easy to navigate and update is by looking at its architecture visually.  When deciding to set up a site, it can help to develop a rough sketch of the site on paper prior to actually setting up the necessary files.  In this way, you can devise a site map that will portray the hierarchy of files relative to the rest of the site.  This is also a useful way to portray a site's content to somebody unfamiliar with what is actually on it.

FrontPage and Dreamweaver allow for the creation and maintenance of sites with site maps of this kind, and they both provide visual representations of sites that are dynamically updated as you further develop your site.  FrontPage portrays this chiefly through the navigation view of your site.  Dreamweaver includes this as the site map view, which is an integral part of defining a site.  With both programs, the site map and graphical navigation features work best if they are used from the time at which you first design and define a site. 

Let the Server Do Some of the Work for You

Web sites are hosted on servers that come in many flavors, each having its unique features, quirks and attributes.  In deciding how and where to have your site hosted, you should consider the available features in order to best leverage that power to serve up your content.  If you have played around with FrontPage at all on a local PC, you may have noticed that some of the features don’t come through perfectly, especially if you just copy them to a diskette or shared file location.  This is probably because the machine where you posted your site didn’t support the server extensions that requires. 

In deciding where to have your site hosted, it is imperative that you also consider the features that are available on that server.  If you use FrontPage to edit your site, it will make things easier if that server supports FrontPage extensions.  This provides essentially two major advantages.  First and foremost, it will allow you to use features like scrolling marquees, shared pages and other FrontPage-specific elements.  Beyond this, if you have your site hosted on a server that supports these extensions, you will have the ability to update content directly, without the need to edit files in one place, only to have to use a different program to get them to your server.  In short, if you use FrontPage without actually running your site on a server that supports its extensions, you are chiefly using it as an HTML editor.

One great feature of FrontPage are the “include pages”, which are essentially independent HTML files that you maintain in one place, which can be included on several pages throughout your site.  As an example, you might want to have a uniform header and footer throughout your site, but you don’t want to have to update every file with these attributes each time you change content.  With the use of “include pages”, you can maintain a single file for the header, footer or even for a left-hand navigation menu, which need only be updated once.

The concept of include pages is not unique to FrontPage, and thankfully Dreamweaver helps you to do this for what are called “server side includes”, which function in the same fashion.  With a slightly different implementation method, Dreamweaver makes it fairly painless to insert and then preview the inclusion of shared files, even before they are transferred to the actual server.

In addition to shared or included files, your server or web host will quite likely provide for usage statistics.  If you contract with a web hosting company, these statistics are quite often included in the price of hosting the site.  If you host your own intranet or external site, there are some free programs such as Analog which can be used to help analyze server’s log of what kinds of users have visited which kinds of pages. 

Where to Find Other Help

To learn more about web authoring tips and tricks, check out one of the following:

Conclusion

In closing, I think that it is best to use a single program to edit your site, and I think that this needs to be a robust site management tool, and not simply a fancy HTML editing program.  As soon as you are faced with the task of creating or updating more than just one or two pages, you will quickly begin to see the value of being able to manage content throughout the entire site.  Being able to do this in a uniform, logical manner, you should be able to avoid problems of version control, broken links and pages that get out of synch with each other.

It is now possible to set up and edit an entire web site without ever having to see a single line of “raw” HTML code.  In order to make the most of the new breed of site management programs, I think that it is more important to get to know the detailed features of a program with which you are comfortable than it is to spend time learning the intricacies of HTML tags and specifications.

Suggested Books on FrontPage and Dreamweaver

Microsoft FrontPage 2000

Dreamweaver 3

Addendum

Beyond the two mentioned in this column, I have heard great things about at least three other programs, which you might want to also consider:

If you have comments or questions about this column, feel free to send me an email message.

Web Sites Mentioned in this Column:

Programs:

Microsoft’s FrontPage 2000

Macromedia’s Dreamweaver 3

Adobe GoLive!

NetObjects Fusion

Allaire’s HomeSite

Allaire’s ColdFusion

Other:

Analog (logfile analysis tool)

WebMonkey

C|Net’s Builder.com

Copyright © 2000 Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.