Online Publishing: Say Goodbye to Static Sites
Posted: 5/25/2011  |  By: Keith Jordan

Imagine that major news breaks - the kind that changes everything in the areas your publication covers. Your editorial team wants to throw normal design out the window and create a unique treatment that conveys the news event's importance.

Most print publications have long since found ways to react to this situation. But what about your website?

Very few media sites have the flexibility to handle these eventualities without custom coding, which often requires specialized skills you may not always have on hand. At best, many sites have a predefined "big news" template. And some don't even have that option. Some sites I review simply pull whatever photo is attached to the story onto the homepage, whether it makes sense without reading the story or not, and pull the lead paragraph of the story, whether it has context in that presentation or not.

Why are these limitations unacceptable in print, but OK on the Web? With a well-designed system, you can accommodate almost any scenario along these lines with non-technical production staff. Here's one way to do it: metadata.

Flip the Switch
If this were a technical discussion, we could get very detailed here. But since this is a business discussion on how to operate a site that will make you proud and earn you lots of money, let's keep it simple. Metadata is information that is attached to your articles or blog posts. It's always there, riding along with the article wherever it goes, but not always displayed, and it can be displayed in different ways as a template requires. You can change a page layout while using the same metadata. It can be as simple as flipping a switch.

The metadata itself can be anything, but most commonly would be a photo, promotional text, and perhaps headline that you attach to the article specifically to appear on your homepage or section pages. This can be different than the pictures and text that appear on the article itself, since your team knows that stuff won't make sense in the context of a homepage. And the metadata can be used, not used, played big, or played small as the layout demands.

Normal day? Use your default setting - let's say you have a lead story, a couple of secondary stories, and then a list of headlines. Since you're pulling your metadata instead of automatically showing the pictures and headlines from the article pages, everything looks tight and in context.

Miracle on the Hudson? Toggle to a layout that strips your lead story across the top of the page and makes the offleads bigger. You're using the same metadata, so nobody has to put much special time into working up the photos and text.

World War III breaks out? Toggle to your WWIII layout that gives gigantic play to the top story, with everything else an afterthought.

The same concepts apply with ad-related or revenue-related alternate layouts. It's the same philosophy and very similar technology.

Limitless Possibilities
You can have as many or as few layout options as you like, and if you need more, any junior Web developer can create more. You can have one for vertical lead photos and another for horizontal lead photos. You can have one for a video as the lead story - and then plug in the video code as metadata in the article. Your editorial team could switch between these options with no technical assistance. And you can leverage the same metadata or alternate metadata for your mobile products.

Sound good? You can do this with any full-fledged content management platform; it may be unavailable or limited on simpler point solutions, and on some in-house systems. It just requires the right conversations with whoever builds or deploys your content management system. The sad thing is how often those conversations don't occur.

The same level of control, flexibility, and refined curation you expect in print is within your reach online. At your next opportunity to review or change Web publishing systems, be sure to ask what kind of flexibility you can give your editors by using metadata and templates that leverage that metadata.

Keith Jordan is managing director of Upstream Digital Media, a consulting business that focuses on editorial site launches, redesigns, and workflows.