Finding e-Content Contentment

A version of this article first appeared in eB-21, published 10 times a year in Europe by TBC Research.Based in London and San Francisco, TBC Research helps senior business professionals make more informed technology decisions through its magazine, research, and events portfolio

On the fourth day of Christmas, while much of Europe was still enjoying the festive period, John P. Dalton, a Forrester Research analyst in the U.S., was busy drafting a report on content management. "A tidal wave of content will soon hit click-and-mortar sites," he concluded. "Site owners muddled through the early days of e-commerce with a roll-your-own approach to content management. But maturing products and the demands of content hypergrowth mean that home-grown solutions will soon go the way of the eight-track tape."

It's the kind of uncomfortable Christmas message that many corporates will not have thanked Forrester for. "Dump all your existing bespoke development work and make your way into what is becoming a maze of different content management packages on offer", it effectively says. But if New Year is the time for new starts and bold resolutions then in truth firms could do no better than review their approach to publishing and updating the content on their Websites right now.

If they're honest, like a reforming smoker struggling to kick the habit, most firms will readily admit that the hodge-podge approach to gathering and loading content onto Websites is only storing up trouble for the future. What is surprising is how deep the problem runs and how long it has already been allowed to continue.

Content Management Void

The figures speak for themselves. According to various estimates, there will be over 10 million Websites this year. Only a small proportion of them--around a fifth--have any form of content management and the vast majority of these use manual processes, probably the hand crafting of HTML pages in the IT department. The amount of manually managed content, 54 percent of Forrester's sample, is down from 1998 figures, when nearly three-quarters were maintained manually. But of the tools being used, no single vendor has any significant market share, indicating a highly fragmented and immature market.

Of course, this represents a massive opportunity for content management vendors and those who have an early lead in the market--such as BroadVision, with its One2One Enterprise and Vignette with its storyServer software. However, the advantage is likely to be challenged by a raft of new entrants to the market with various claims of cheaper solutions and more flexible technology which is quicker to implement. The downside is that while such fragmentation and competition makes for good press, it can also create havoc within major corporates that are trying to impose a single standard.

Ian Turner, managing director of BroadVision UK, says even in some of its larger installations, such as BT.com, the cultural difficulties in imposing a single standard are significant. BT has eight of its 12 sites using BroadVision to manage content, but Turner says: "One of the big challenges is not the technology, but the politics--who takes ownership of the site and how to stop the next site springing up and doing its own thing. Even at BT they can improve how they manage content and they're only scratching the surface of what they can do in terms of evolving content management down to the end users."

The goal in any content management initiative is to devolve the job of updating the site to the business users, thus taking it out of the hands of overstretched technical people who are invariably out of touch with what the site visitor needs to see. But the nightmare scenario that many companies now find themselves in is where hundreds of disparate new media agencies, business and IT departments are hacking together thousands of static HTML pages. Change has become next to impossible.

A report from Ovum last year, "Web content management: strategies, technologies and markets" states: "The average number of pages on a Website is growing rapidly and will reach more than 100,000 by 2001. Every page will have multiple links. But do you actually know how your Website is run? The vast majority are managed by a webmaster who codes the content by hand in HTML using standard PC tools. So what happens when you want to do something simple like update the corporate logo? If the pages are handcoded, you may have to change each one manually, which could take weeks."

Separating Content From the Back End

Turner says he is often confronted with a situation where BroadVision is effectively asked if it can retrofit its e-commerce platform onto an existing site set-up. He says the vendor will work with what's already there. "At the top levels, you need to manage the key site visitors. If that leads to a link that brings in static HTML and if that does the job, why touch it?"

Vendors are agreed that the other key goal for any content management is to separate the presentation layer which publishes the information in HTML, WML or whatever the next fad is likely to be, from the back-end content management. Up and coming vendor InterX, which has its roots firmly in the publishing space, makes a big play of having a marked separation between the two. "There's not a clean separation in some systems," says Phil Sant, executive vice president of technology at InterX. "Because they're Web-led, their architecture encourages programmers to write code and embed it into the presentation layer. Then when you go to a new presentation layer you have to do the code all over again."

Separating the two also has the advantage of splitting out the back end challenge of sourcing and managing from the front-end job of publishing. BroadVision's Turner believes there's also a pressing need for a vertical approach. For example, the content management problem faced by Dixons, an electrical retailer, is a catalogue issue. It needs to ensure all product descriptions from its various ERP systems appear in a standard format across its 12 different divisions. On the other hand, CommerzBank wants to know what other sources of information, such as news feeds, it can provide around its core, internally authored, unstructured reports. Vendors have different strengths, and much of the current focus is around catalogues.

"Depending on the market that customers are in, we can provide standard content types and workflows," Turner says. "Every single bank is doing very similar things--why work it out for themselves? If you think of an accounting package, and the content is an invoice, you wouldn't dream of writing a separate format for each customer."

The analogy with the back office is an uncomfortable one, however, as two decades down the line in finance automation, companies are starting to realise that for all their internal standardisation and automation, their ability to communicate with suppliers and customers' systems is just about zero.

Unwittingly, BroadVision and its early adopter peers, in their anxiety to please and cater for customer demands, may have been making a rod for their own backs. As Turner admits: "In the past, people did not know what they wanted. They said, 'You're our application provider, you tell us.' People have been buying a package, and it's been built based on market research, rather than customer requirements."

Rivals are now attempting to make mileage out of the apparently closed nature of early systems. Reef, for example, with its Internetware software, stresses the need for an integrated architecture, so customers are not building gateways to other systems. "Originally vendors had a vertical view of the world," says Jurgen Obermann, VP of marketing at Reef. "They built content and commerce systems. Now they're trying to move to building on-line communities, only you can't move from one to the other because there are multiple complex applications involved."

Flexible, User-controlled Forms

Obermann claims the complexity involved in many such projects means the cycle of drawing up a functional spec, developing and testing can take from six months to a year, which he says is too long for the fast moving world of e-business. Through a flexible, user controlled forms-based approach, Reef claims to be able to layer a content management system horizontally across many applications in a matter of weeks. "You go through the whole process once and any other ideas you have you can do on the fly. And it's done by the user, not the IT department."

Whatever the approach, there is no doubt that this is an immature marketspace. While the core functionality of most systems remains the same, the extensions, either through integration with other systems, or through add-on capabilities which are only just emerging, are many and varied. And despite the recent humbling of some vendors, the potential has led to bullish claims from many of the players both for themselves and for the capabilities of their offerings.

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