Static and interactive
The simplest websites are static. Static sites generally display the same information to all visitors. The information usually changes only occasionally. Static sites are rather like brochures – once a brochure is printed it will have a lifetime of many months.
Interactive websites change their content “on the fly” in the light of visitors’ requests. A common use is to allow visitors to see selections of items, perhaps from a catalogue, or the visitor to see personal information. Social networking and dating sites are examples of this. Interactive websites can allow high degrees of personalisation.
Websites built around content management systems (CMS) allow the website owner to make changes to the site. CMS allows sites to be kept up to date without recourse to the web developers.
Under the hood
Websites are written in a language called HTML. HTML defines how the page will look on screen and provides forms, navigation and multi media. HTML is usually used together with cascading style sheets (CSS) which control the appearance of the pages.
Scripts are basically programs which provide interaction. Scripts work both on the visitor’s computer (client side) and on the server. Client side scripts are useful for things like form validation and are mostly written in a language called Java script. Server side scripts can pull information from databases and build a page from that. Search engines are an example: the visitor types in a search term, the server script fetches records from the database and sends back details of web sites containing those terms. Catalogues are another example. The script can build a list of, say, women’s knitwear.
Server side scripts can also process information like orders. The commonest languages for server scripts are Microsoft’s ASP and the open source PHP. There are a vast number of pre-written components that can be used by designers and developers.
How websites are produced
Websites can be simply typed into text editors. This needs a detailed knowledge of the HTML language. More often, WYSIWIG generators like Adobe Dreamweaver allow designers to create the pages. These generate the HTML and CSS. WYSIWIG generators are most suitable for producing static websites but can be used to provide the basis for interactive sites.
Interactive websites are really bespoke software applications. Production of the more complex ones needs high software design and programming skills. Such websites have to be created by a team of designers and software engineers.
Website owners don’t want to have to keep returning to their supplier every time they want to make a minor change. For this reason content management systems (CMS) have been developed. A CMS allows the user to make changes easily. He can change wording, make basic changes to the layout and appearance and he can add new pages. Most smaller websites are now built around A CMS. The CMS generates the HTML and scripts, and creates the necessary databases.
There are many CMSs on the market. WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are probably the most common.
The advantages of CMS depend on how much processing is needed on the site. For complex sites with large databases and high degrees of personalisation, it is usually more economical to use a software developer to produce a bespoke site. The more complex the tailoring, the harder it becomes with a CMS and it quickly reaches the point where a bespoke site is better.
Bespoke websites don’t lose the benefits of CMS because the developer will provide a control panel that allows the website owner to change his content.
Designers and developers
Most smaller websites are created by designers. Designers tend to work with a CMS. Larger sites need to be built by experienced software developers who will be expert in the languages used. More importantly, they understand how to design and debug applications and are more aware of user issues. Complex sites often need to be audited and security is often an issue. Experienced software developers understand this.
Controlling what you pay for
When you commission a website, you must beware of locking yourself into the supplier. What a designer enters into a CMS or other generator is called the source. Many generated websites can only be maintained by changing the source and not all suppliers will hand over the source. If you don’t have access to the source, an unscrupulous supplier can charge high fees for future work. Worse, if you enter a dispute with your supplier or he goes out of business, you will be stuck. Demand a contractual clause that states he will hand over the source. At the very least, insist that an escrow copy of the source be kept by a third party. If the supplier won’t agree to that, don’t deal with him.