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Online Presence: Content-Management Trends

A hard look at database-driven store websites illuminates their pluses and minuses.
By Joe Dysart

While it’s trendy for e-commerce designers to extol the virtues of a database-driven website for retailers, the significant up-front costs associated with some of these sites may not be worth it for the smallest of pet stores.

Granted, database-driven websites, which link all transactions on a store’s site directly to the business database, offer numerous sales, design and promotional advantages. However, because the systems behind these sites are so complex, they require web designers who are extremely sophisticated, have a much deeper knowledge of computer programming and charge more.

Database-driven websites use a series of design templates and tend to offer less design flexibility for the storeowner. In practice, this means the e-commerce site designed for one store may have the same look and feel of many other e-commerce sites on the web.

Another major disadvantage of database-driven websites is they tend to be slower loading. The reason: Every page of a database-driven website is generated on the fly. When a customer clicks on a link to access a web page devoted to a specific product, for example, the system needs to “create” that page at that time, making calls to the database to provide pictures, text and basic layout elements.

Conversely, older-style static HTML pages—the types of web pages that first built the web—don’t have this problem, since those pages already physically exist on a web server, and are ready to be accessed with a single mouse click.

Yet another shortcoming of some database-driven sites is the potential problem with search-engine optimization. Generally, such sites generate web addresses for each store page that are extremely long and tough for search engines to categorize, resulting in lower search-engine returns for a store site. Web designers are occasionally willing to tweak the design system’s code to make the pages more search-engine friendly. Other system types allow the designer to drop in a module that auto tweaks the code for easy readability by the search engines. However such capability can never be assumed as “built-in” to a database-driven website.

Finally, database-driven websites—those generally controlled by a content-management system (CMS)—can be completely derailed and even destroyed by an inexperienced user who stumbles into the wrong programming area. Indeed, due to the nature of content-management systems, a few unintentional blunders made within them can completely change the look and feel of every page of the website.

Caveats aside, scores of online retailers have looked beyond the potential shortcomings of database-driven store sites, since these web presences offer some incredible advantages.

Designed for Non-Techies
Any decent database-driven website comes with a content-management system—a design interface specifically designed for the non-technical user. One of the greatest advantages of database-driven sites is these interfaces enable even the most inexperienced person to quickly and easily update product prices, descriptions, pictures and other data that need to be continually changed or enhanced on a website.

In practice, CMS capability should save retailers thousands of dollars in design costs over the long run, since they won’t need to call in a web designer every time the store site needs updating.

Designed for Multiple Authors
Another major design advantage of a CMS system is it efficiently handles multiple people working on the site. Each person can receive  limited design access to the site—authorization, for example, only to change product prices, pictures and descriptions—so that unintended changes are not mistakenly entered.

Offers Detailed Data Storage and Analysis
Of course, database-driven websites truly shine with their ability to amalgamate and analyze all the data associated with running a retail business online, including keeping track of all transaction history, contact info, individual customer interactions with the site, customer service knowledge databases, and the like. Static HTML sites simply cannot offer these advantages.

Capable of Instant Global Updates
CMS systems usually also rely on a single, cascading style sheet (CSS) to render the look and feel of the site. Consequently, web designers need only make a minor change to the CSS to change the color, layout and other design elements of every page in the website. Again, such capability saves the retailer on design costs, since a designer can make one change affecting tens, hundreds or even thousands of pages, as opposed to asking the designer to make each of those changes individually on a static HTML site.

Plenty of Plug-in Design Modules
Realizing that websites are often continually evolving, CMS makers generally build in a capability for users to easily add new modules to their websites, including polls, new shopping carts, various data-input forms, etc. For the web designer, this means a poll (or similar content) can be added to a store site with a few well-placed clicks. For the retailer, this should translate into lower modification fees from the web designer, since the design work involved is extremely minimal.

Auto-RSS Generation
 Any decent CMS module also automatically generates an RSS (really simple syndication) feed, for each page in the site. An alternative to e-mail, RSS sends word of page updates, sales, specials and such to customers who prefer to receive that info via their RSS readers, which look similar to e-mail readers. This is a great promotional perk that would need to be hand-coded if the site was designed with static HTML.

The Bottom Line
A retailer simply interested in creating a modest presence on the web with the intention of selling only a few products online, or perhaps not selling anything online at all, would probably be satisfied and better served with an old-style, static HTML website.

Conversely, higher-powered retailers looking to sell hundreds or thousands of products over the web will want to choose a database-driven website. For these retailers, the advantages of such systems are too potent to pass up. <HOME>

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan.


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