Web Development Smackdown

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The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Web Development Smackdown

By: Joe Hoover | Information Technology | November 12, 2010
Currently eight historical societies have posted reviews of their organization's web site redesigns on this blog.  Looking over the posts, there are some interesting takeaways.

For most historical societies this was not their first design but this was their second or third redesign. For a couple of organizations the redesign was necessitated by organizational and branding changes, but for most, web site redesigns appear to be about the need for better access due to obsolete software or advancements in back-end accessibility making it desirable to change the technology on how the web site is maintained. For the Edina Historical Society they gained more control, for the Morrison County Historical Society they improved the productivity and efficiency of updating their web site.

Common Themes

There are some common themes on what the organizations were looking for when building or redesigning a web site.

  1. Cheap/affordable - This is probably the hands down leader in what organizations are looking for. Whether it is the cost of the software, hosting service or in operational costs of maintaining it, finding a solution that fits in an organization's budget is critical.

  2. Easy - For many organizations especially those with no web skills, the ability that it be simple to add and update content this is also a top concern.

  3. Foolproof/security - no one likes when a site goes down, or having to deal with coding problems or - heaven forbid security issues if they site gets hacked.

  4. Control - For some organizations this is not important but for others it is either desirable or critical to have control over the both the updating of their web site and the branding of the web site.

Unfortunately these four common themes are usually not compatible with each other.

Cheap vs Foolproof vs. Easy vs. Control

Build your own
Handcoding your site while cheap and offering the most control is neither easy or foolproof.  Many have used or are using the WYSIWYG web editor Dreamweaver to update their web site and while it can still allow a great amount of control, the application is not cheap and even if it is set up correctly for some it still may not be foolproof or easy enough. There are other WYSIWYG editors some free or cheaper than Dreamweaver however the old adage “You get what you pay for” fits well here.

CMS it
While there are some great solutions such as making use of free open source Content Management System (CMS) software such as Drupal or Wordpress or low cost do-it-yourself software like ExpressionEngine which can make building a web site very affordable if you do it yourself, and easier to manage, these solutions still cost in time and require experience to set up correctly. Also, if  not set up right or updated when security patches are released they can pose a security problem.

Both "Building your own" and "CMS it" solutions require a hosting provider as well. There are also some very good deals with hosting services which will host your own web pages, but again they are low-cost, not free. However if you are paying $100 versus $10 a month for hosting that extra $90 buys you a whole lot of attention from your hosting provider should the server go down.

Let others deal with it
If you are not bothered by lack of control and like the ease and cost of having your city or county host your organization’s web pages on their site,  this could be the way for your organization to go. However, more than likely you will have to play by their rules and timetable. In the Edina Historical Society’s case the city did not even allow for linking to external sites, so linking to the organization’s Facebook page or other social media was out of the question.

Put your web in the cloud
If you don’t mind ads, there are many free services such as Wordpress.com (WordPress.com utilizes the same WordPress software but the hosting and managing of the software is taken care of by the team at WordPress.com. ) that you build your web site with their tools. There are even some sites like Weebly.com that will allow you to create a basic free ad free web site but the hope is that you will upgrade to to their more fully featured “Pro” account. These sites allow you to a build web site with no technical skills and are much more foolproof and secure than building your own CMS site - and for simple web sites these are great solutions and will can even give you more solutions if you upgrade to their paid services. However,  they do not lend themselves to a great deal of customization especially when you need a database or software solution.

The moral of the post...
There are thousands of ways to build the wrong web site and no way to build a perfect web site. And as Mary Warner said in her blog post, "There are gazillions of ways to structure a website." This unfortunately is the nature of the beast since every web site doomed to obsolescence as soon as it are placed online and that there is no prefect solution, that every organization has to balance out their own 'cheap', 'foolproof',  'easy' and 'control' needs when building their web site. However, one of the key things in building a web site is planning. That may be taking an inventory of your current site, looking at your organizations needs, surveying your customers, etc... I highly recommend if folks have not already is to look over our Web Site Worksheet and Web Standards Guide which were written to be resources in web site planning. It was great to see some of the organizations listed here do things like surveying stakeholders, useing wireframes and reflecting on their web sites traffic by looking through Google Analytics stats.

Are there other observations on common issues/themes between these sites and your sites?