In the beginning was HTML, and while it was rather ugly, it was good overall. It allowed anyone with a modicum of skill to create Web sites, producing both good content and attractive presentation of that content. Toss in a few <A HREF> links and you could even weave pages together into a comprehensive site.
The problem was that it was darn tedious, and to this day, it’s still fairly tedious to create Web sites, to take the skeleton or template of a page and customize it for a specific page of content, to update the navigational subsystem to ensure that the new page is known, and to maintain now-necessary features like a sitemap.
It’s no surprise that more and more sophisticated tools appeared on the scene, starting with FrontPage and self-referential Web-based Web page editors (think homepage builders) and evolving into the powerful Dreamweaver and GoLive expensive commercial solutions for managing Web content.
These tools allow you to create beautiful sites with compelling content, but they don’t allow neophytes or non-technical people to maintain content or add new content. And so even with these sophisticated tools, most Web sites are static creations, and most companies view their Web sites as digital brochures. Sure, it might be more sophisticated with a Flash navigational system, or might feature a discussion board or other community involvement element, but it’s very rare for a traditional Web site to be updated more frequently than once every month or two.
And if I had a dollar for each person who told me that he doesn’t update his Web site because he has to send his requests to a Webmaster, who then queues it up for weeks or months before actually making the change, I’d be a wealthy writer!
Meanwhile, in the Blogosphere
In parallel to the development of Web technologies and tools, the ability to interact with others was gaining popularity; the first widespread example is the now-crufty guestbook. You can still find zillions of these through Google, but they were only a stepping stone to more sophisticated online discussion systems. The next step was discussion boards, also known as bulletin board systems.
Meanwhile, some smart developers were realizing that the Web-based Web page editors coupled with guestbooks could create very nice tools for letting non-tech users add new content to their Web pages. Logically, this technique was first used as online diaries and journals, creating a system that time-stamped entries and showed them most commonly in a most-recent-first format. Perfect for teen angst, Web-based logs of entries–Weblogs–caught on in some circles and grew quickly.
As they became more popular, however, blogging tools also evolved at a breakneck pace, to where new entries (articles) would automatically be placed on their own standalone Web pages and also featured on the main page of the site until supplanted by newer material. This was an important evolution because it meant that Weblog tools had morphed, perhaps without anyone noticing, from diaries into true content-management systems.
Fast forward to the current generation of Weblog tools; they are indeed quite powerful and capable tools for managing even the largest and most complex Web sites. Further, because they’re quite flexible, working off page templates just as Dreamweaver and its ilk do, sites that use blogging tools as the back end can present their data using common blog conventions (which I’ll get to in a moment) or eschew all the standard approaches, using the tool as a way to simplify management of what appears to be a more traditional Web site.
The Essence of Blogging
The real value of blogging isn’t the capability of the tool, but the ability for each and every page on the site, each and every article, to invite and display feedback from readers–comments, as they’re called in the blogging world. This is a dramatic difference because it changes a monologue, a “brochure,” into a dialogue with readers or customers.
Indeed, often the most compelling reading on a Weblog are the comments that others leave and the debate that often ensues as people add their two cents and disagree with each other.
While there are no blog police and no laws stating that a site must have certain capabilities to truly be a Weblog, it is nonetheless true that most blogs allow comments, timestamp their articles, show them in newest-to-oldest order, and have an RSS feed–a rudimentary way for people to subscribe to the content of a Weblog in a specifically designed RSS aggregator, rather than forcing them to revisit the site with any sort of frequency.
Figure 1 shows an example, my popular Ask Dave Taylor site.
Notice in Figure 1 that more than one article is shown on this home page, each has a time stamp (although it’s probably a bit hard to read!) and each has an indication of how many comments have been added on the site. I won’t say that these are essential elements of a blog, because a blog is just a toolkit and content-management system, after all, but they’re certainly what I’d consider a best practice for getting the maximum value out of a Weblog system.
Behind the Scenes
Where blogging really shines is when you look behind the scenes at how blogging tools actually work. In a way that’s far more sophisticated than Web page development tools, blogs really let you separate the content from the presentation; if you want to focus on presentation, you can edit template files, but if you’re just interested in maintaining existing content or adding new content, you can focus on that, too.
Figure 2 shows a behind-the-scenes view of Ask Dave Taylor, running the popular Movable Type application.
In my opinion, this separation of content from presentation is a wonderful reason to consider using a blog as the foundation of your entire Web site. Being able to focus on the words–on what you want to say, on your content–is not only a wonderful relief (no worrying about breaking HTML with an edit hiccup!) but lowers the barrier of entry for new Web site creators/bloggers to almost zero. If you can write an email message, you can bookmark a Weblog entry page, create content, and manage a Web site. Just add water!
There’s an even better reason why blogs are compelling replacements for Web sites: Search engines positively love Weblogs because they’re content-centric and because they’re typically updated with great frequency. Put those together and it’s true that organizations with Weblogs are far more findable than those with just a Web site.
Remember, if you aren’t updating your site, you’re gradually becoming harder to find as newer, more compelling, more up-to-date content is bubbling up in the Google search results.
Just Drink the Kool-Aid Already
Seriously, I now find myself in the situation where I’m far more focused on how I can ensure that the owners of a Web site have as much control as possible, without giving them the ability to break things. That’s hard to do with existing Web site tools, but remarkably easy with blogging tools. Even if you aren’t a devotee of blogging and believe it’s a fad (tip: it’s not), I still encourage you to learn more about blogs as a way to reinvent your Web site and make maintenance, updates, and adding new content far, far easier.
You can learn a lot more about Weblogs by reading my Ask Dave Taylor Weblog in the “blogging” category, and legal issues, best practices, and business considerations can be found on this site, the Intuitive Life Business Blog.