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Archive for February 2007
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Web 2.0 and the Old-School Webmaster

Wednesday, February 21, 2007 4:59 pm

Are you a Webmaster? That was my unofficial title at my last job, and it’s what everyone calls me on my latest project.

I have always been very fond of the term – it conveys a sense of accountability, a go-to person for a Web site’s design and content. When I tell people I’m the Webmaster for so-and-so, they immediately understand what I do for a living. Akin to being a doctor, I’m often asked all kinds of questions about Web sites and design.

But, the title isn’t readily used much in the IT industry nowadays. Over the last couple of years, it has nearly disappeared…on the way of the digital dodo, like Pets.com. Webmaster is just so old school.

So, if you’re a Webmaster, are you old school, too? That might depend on where and how you work.

Webmasters can still be found in large and small organizations, and as independent freelancers. Like most IT professionals, they are very busy people, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. If you aren’t constantly refining your skills, you’re likely to get left behind. Obsolescence has happened before to many Fortran programmers, mainframe administrators, PC hardware techs, and FilePro gurus. You could be next.

I’m not ready to declare the Webmaster title as officially dead just yet. But, the conventional Webmaster’s days are definitely numbered. Things are changing incredibly fast, and if you blink, you just might miss everything.

I recently read three excellent reviews about Web 2.0 trends, including Jared Spool’s “Web 2.0, The Power Behind the Hype,” Roger Johansson’s “Six Things that Suck about the Web in 2006,” and Gartner’s “2006 Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle.”

I’d like to share my own list of Web 2.0 survival tips for Webmasters:

Publishing can be a lot easier

Content management systems are a long-held secret of large organizations to enable multiple users to post and manage content, and to preserve the overall look and feel of their Web pages. If you’re a Webmaster for a large institution, you’re already well-versed in CMS technologies.

Until recently, CMS applications were only available to those who had the luxury of big budgets to purchase software or harvest teams of developers to build and maintain their own custom solutions.

In 2006, some outstanding open source CMS tools matured. They are ideal solutions to give smaller organizations more autonomy and control over their content, while enabling Webmasters to deploy a greater range of features and interactivity.

If you are still managing static page templates, then it’s time to take a look at free CMS platforms such as WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.

Think like a developer

PHP, AJAX, APIs, Python, Ruby on Rails. There is no question about it: Web 2.0 is a developer’s world, and today’s Web sites are much more interactive and feature-rich. If they haven’t already, your organization or clients will be demanding functionality that may be out of your comfort zone. Participate in requirements-gathering sessions. Better still: try getting your feet wet with these technologies – you’ll be able to understand concepts more clearly, and convey capabilities and limitations more coherently.

Skip the intro, please

There haven’t been this many “skip intro” links on Web sites since 2000 during the Rise of Flash, Part 1. What’s more surprising is the resurgence of Flash-only Web sites, such as the Niketown and Bahamavention Web sites. Didn’t e-commerce make this mistake before? Flash definitely has its place on the Web, it’s just that those times always seem so few and far between.

Don’t neglect usability

Web 2.0 technologies are new, cool, and for the most part, their longevity is indeterminable. As developers push out their new tricks, usability and accessibility have been pushed aside. There is even growing dissent among some new designers who are questioning long-time leaders in the usability profession, such as Jakob Nielsen.

Don’t give up this fight – your efforts may, generally, be thankless, but not trying is always apparent once the final product is rolled out. No matter where you stand on the spectrum, usability can’t be ignored, and accessibility doesn’t just mean that your pages validate. Test, test, test, and then test some more. Include people other than yourself and your team.

Anything goes

Long pages are not only Ok now, but desirable.
Right-side navigation is commonplace.
Big text is cool.

Who knew? Go for it and take some design leaps.

It’s a man’s world

I’m not trying to start a gender war here, just commenting on several alarming articles that have come out in the last couple of months regarding the disappearance of women from the IT industry:

Women in technology: A call to action
Women abandoning tech jobs
Why the number of women in IT is decreasing
The darkening mine

Women are abandoning IT in droves. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women filled only 26.7 percent of computer and mathematical positions in 2006. And, a recent Gartner report found that, overall, total female enrollment in college computer programs today is generally 8 to 15 percent – a drastic decline from the 40 percent it averaged in 1999 and 2000.

I’m dismayed, but I’m not entirely surprised by this news. If you’re a woman and a Webmaster …wait…am I the only one?

Assess your skills

As a Web professional, it is absolutely imperative that you keep your skills up to date. Where do you stand? Here’s a quick starter guide:

Table-based layouts? Old school.
XHTML and CSS? On the money.
Using FTP to test changes? Old school.
XAMPP? On the money.
Frames? Old school.
PHP includes? On the money.
E-mail newsletters? Old school.
RSS? On the money.
CNet News? Old school.
Slashdot? On the money.
Business cards? Old school.
LinkedIn? On the money.

Specialize in something

The Webmaster’s greatest contribution is that of being a generalist who can bridge the communication gap between executives, marketers, designers, developers and customers. But, you also need to be able to fill in technical and creative gaps, particularly if you’re coordinating the work of others. Keep your “street cred” fresh by having at least one outstanding dominant skill, whether it’s project management, creative design, writing, front-end coding, server maintenance, or database development.

Find a new title

Pick the one that most closely reflects your skills:

Communications director
Creative director
Front-end designer
User experience manager
Information architect
Interactive designer
Graphic designer
User interface designer
Project manager
Strategy manager
General contractor
Online producer
Site editor
Site manager
Site administrator
Content administrator
Web developer
Web designer
Web manager
Services planner
Business analyst

My favorite? Sweeper.

Focus on content

Webmasters have always known that content is king. This absolutely hasn’t changed; in fact, a content crisis is looming at many organizations. Quality content takes talent and time: it must be created, coaxed, nurtured, pulled, shaped, and tweaked. Web 2.0 has shined a spotlight on this, bringing us the best and worst of the content challenge.

Consider CMS tools: the excitement over being able to publish at will is quickly dampened by the realization that someone still needs to create the content. Building a blog or social networking site? That requires even more dedication. In fact, some bloggers are even starting to close up shop.

Web 2.0 presents a new toolbox, but no one’s yet sure what needed to be fixed. Take advantage of this time to try some new things, just don’t sacrifice content along the way.

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