Christie had been a heavy user of the Internet for years. “I knew which sites I researched repeatedly,” Christie said. “So I started planning my site by analyzing how sites keep me coming back. Good content is the primary draw, but what else?”
Analyzing Website Assets and Annoyances
After a few days of surfing her favorite haunts and examining sites she’d let fall by the wayside, Christie came up with a laundry list of characteristics that she liked: short, easy to remember and descriptive site name; clear focus and organization; easy navigation; free and meaty content; plus links to additional resources.
She also identified a number of annoyances that sent her running to another site: multiple broken links, signup required to access content, popup ads, outdated content, poor navigation and/or search capability. And her number one complaint—locking you onto the site by disabling the browser back button!
Website Do’s and Don’ts
Then she went one step further and read numerous articles on what other people look for. “These articles strongly influenced not only what features were incorporated, but where they are placed,” Christie said. “For example, privacy and the ability to contact a real person are top priorities for many site visitors. So I placed both in the top navigation bar for easy access.”
She also discovered that the best sites are designed to involve visitors—to invite them to contribute content, give feedback, voice their opinions, and exchange information with and help each other. “To improve the ‘stickiness’ of the site, we expanded our plan to include a forum, polls, contributing content, free classifieds and a job bank. I also redesigned my e-newsletter tone to make it more personal, as well as to make subscribers come to the site to read the full story or fill out an opinion poll.”
Custom Development Gone Wrong
After talking to several Web developers, Christie chose a developer offering a custom designed PHP solution using SQL databases to store thousands of stories and favorite links. However, two months into the project, it became evident that the developer didn’t have adequate programming staff to launch the site within the promised three-month schedule. Unfortunately, Christie felt she had few alternatives. “I’d already spent hundreds of hours working on the site design and adding thousands of favorite links and articles to the database—work that would be lost if I changed vendors.”
Three months later and one week before launch, the site went down. The next day it was still offline, even the backend admin area. Then the dreaded call came: hackers had broken into the server hosting facility. “What about the backup? I asked.”
“The last backup file was corrupted,” was the answer. A two-month old zip file didn’t match the current software version, making site restoration almost impossible—but they said they would try. “At this point, I lost all confidence in the developer—not to mention over five-thousand records I’d uploaded,” Christie said.
Searching for a New Solution
Christie wasn’t sure what to do. “I couldn’t afford the time or money to start coding the site from scratch. I knew I would be shopping for champagne on a beer pocketbook of $5,000,” Christie said. “But I didn’t want to compromise unless I had to.”
Christie began searching online for a new developer. Soon, one of the people she contacted emailed her a slew of probing questions.
- What kind of site do you need developed?
- How did you choose PHP?
- Is an admin interface required?
- Do you need to manage banner ads?
- What are your support requirements after implementation?”
“I felt like I was taking a test,” Christie said. “But the quality of his inquiries gave me confidence this person wanted to clearly understand the scope of the project, as well as my level of expertise to manage the site.”
Soon Christie scheduled a meeting with Scott Kroeger, owner of Hudson Avenue Technologies in Omaha NE, to discuss the challenges of launching such a complex site on a limited budget. After Christie reviewed her well-documented site map and specifications with Kroeger, he recommended a proven and supported open source content management system (CMS): PostNuke.
“Many developers start coding right away,” Kroeger said. “Since my background is in integration, I get more excited about finding open source software, figuring out how the code works and then using my technical skills and coding to make the modules work together. This way I don’t have to spend a lot of time programming from scratch and debugging code.”
Integrating/Customizing Open Source Solutions
The two biggest challenges Kroeger faced with the PostNuke implementation were finding a site search solution and providing unique page layout capabilities for each major category or page.
“Linda wanted the flexibility of using html blocks to handle the bulk of the content,” Kroeger said. “However, PostNuke only searches major modules, not html pages. To resolve this issue, I integrated a PostNuke module called Content Express. This module provides the site with a very friendly admin interface for adding html pages and controlling the site navigation, as well as a search engine for html pages.”
Unique block/page configuration for additional pages isn’t supported by a single PostNuke install. By examining other PostNuke site installations and reading forum discussions, Kroeger quickly figured out that multiple PostNuke installs would work around the page layout problem and provide complete control over the subsite blocks.
“A PostNuke subsite is an additional installation of PostNuke within the ‘main’ PostNuke installation,” Kroeger said. “For example, if the main PostNuke installation is installed under ‘/htdocs/postnuke’, a subsite would be installed under ‘/htdocs/postnuke/subsite1’. So my challenge was to figure out how to make all 28 installs talk to each other by modifying what database tables each subsite looked at. I configured the subsites to maintain their own block layouts—thus each major topic category or subsite/page can be laid out uniquely. Also, Content Express wasn’t built for multi-site configuration, so I had to figure out what it was doing to know how to integrate it for the multi-site solution.”
To complete the site, Kroeger integrated free PostNuke modules to provide an ezine, forum, job bank, and banner/ad management. “Within two weeks, I was laying out pages and uploading data.” Christie said. “And by the end of two months the DoctorVAR.com site I’d dreamed about was up—within my $5,000 budget and without sacrificing one feature or requirement. The only software I had to purchase was a classified ads module and shopping cart for $59, plus a $30 theme. The rest of the software was free.”
Kroeger added, “Because Linda had educated herself on Website design and defined the site specifications so well, I knew clearly from the start what was expected. This made my job much easier, which combined with my open source integration strategy, saved her a lot of time and money.”
The flexibility, performance, and ease of administration of the DoctorVAR.com implementation is a testament to how robust and cost effective open source content management systems are for supporting robust e-commerce Websites.
For additional information about DoctorVAR.com visit their Web site at http://www.doctorvar.com.
DoctorVAR.com Website Content/Stickiness Articles
DoctorVar Web Presence Articles
Web Marketing & E-Commerce http://www.wilsonWeb.com/
Apromotionguide.com - Free Website promotion tutorial http://apromotionguide.com/
Content Express (PostNuke Module)http://pn.arising.net/ce/
WhatsNews (PostNuke ezine module)http://nuke-modules.gading.de/
phpAdsNew (open source ad server)http://www.phpadsnew.com/one/
phpBB (open source bulletin board) http://www.phpbb.com/
phProfession (PostNuke job bank module) http://www.phpsolutions.co.uk/index.php
Linda Freeman is a freelance writer based in Omaha NE.