CMS: Websites the Modern Way

This article is for non-technical people who create and edit content for websites.

In the olden days, you sent new content and edits to the website administrator in an email and that person took care of it. Sooner or later. For many non-profit organizations the website administrator was a volunteer who kept the site in his or her basement and staff had no access.

The beauty of a Content Management System (CMS) is that now you and all the staff and volunteers of your organization can all edit your own content. The labor is better divided between content experts, designers, and developers, and there are fewer possibilities for mistakes.

You may have WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Google Sites, Ektron, or another CMS. Here are some tips you can use with whatever CMS you have.

Content is now in chunks

In the past, you may have edited an entire webpage. Today, a single webpage probably pulls content from several places in your CMS. Different CMSs have different terms for these pages: posts, items, modules, etc. When the site is designed, decisions are made about what pieces will appear where. When you go to the CMS to put in your content, you should think of the content in small chunks or blurbs.

  • If you're selling 10 different books, the description of each one will be a separate chunk.
  • If you have an announcement that should be on every page of the site, you will enter it in a module or news area instead of entering it in each page.

WYSIWYG and HTML

When you hit "edit" or create a new page, most CMSs will have two editing views. Visual or WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) view looks like a word processing screen. You should be able to do almost all your editing here. "WYSIWYG" looks like a scary technical term, but it's actually your friend! HTML or code view shows the code that will tell the webpage to do the formatting you see in WYSIWYG. Editing in HTML view gives you more exact control, but you have to deal with the scary <brackets>. If you had WordPerfect in the 1990s you'll be right at home.

Templates and styles

One of the hallmarks of a CMS is the power to set fonts, styles, and templates that will appear throughout the site and can be changed with one step. This is good and makes your site look more professional. When you are adding content, you don't need to worry about fonts, colors, and styles because the designer has already done it. (Or you can hire me to do it!) Therefore, you should almost never change the font of your content in the WYSIWYG editor.

Instead, you should put content in regular paragraphs, use bullets and numbered lists, and add headings and sub-headings using the tool in the editor. Again, don't set a subhead by making it bold, red, and 14pt. Instead, use the "style" or "paragraph" tool to tell the CMS that the line should be formatted like every other Heading 3 in the site. That way you don't have to remember how you did the previous heading, just whether you're using Heading 1 or this is a subhead to Heading 1, so you should use Heading 2.

How to paste

I like Microsoft Word. Until it's time to put the content in a webpage. Then Word is evil. If you copy from Word and paste directly in your CMS, Word is likely to add tens of lines of gobbledygook HTML code. You probably won't see the code, but you will probably find when you preview the page that some of your content is in the wrong font or size and it is very difficult to fix. The system is confused by all the extra code.

There are a few ways to get around this:

  • Use your CMS's "paste from Word" or "clean up Word formatting" tool. In my experience, this never removes all the code.
  • Use your CMS's "paste text only" tool. This works!
  • Download a free tool called PureText. Whenever you want to paste text only, click the icon in the bottom right of your screen or set the software so that Alt-V always pastes text only.
  • Open Notepad, paste into Notepad, copy again, paste into your CMS. Works, but is annoying.
  • Write your content in the CMS. Works, but is not always practical.

When you have pasted cleanly, then go through and apply headings and bullets. You may find you need to hit enter at the end of each paragraph. Always preview what your content will look like on your site.

How people read on the web

They don't. We don't. We scan most printed material, but we really scan webpages. A long chunk of plain text begs the surfer to surf to a more interesting page. To keep your readers' small store of attention:

  • Make links and headings short and descriptive instead of cute. "About Us" instead of "Our Vital Stats."
  • Put the most important information first. (Remember when newspapers used to do this?)
  • Use lots of bullets, numbered lists, and headings.
  • Don't make paragraphs too long.
  • Cut, cut, cut.

How search enginges read on the web

You want your wonderful content to be easily found by search engines and the search function on your own site. That's another good reason to be descriptive in your titles. Also, many CMSs will have a section for "metadata." That's data about your data/content: author, date, description, keywords, tags, etc. The more search terms you add here, the more often your page will be found.

Now that you know the basics, you can go on to find out more about your CMS and how your organization uses it. Let me know if you need a class – I'm very affordable.

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