Building Web Sites is Easy

The geek shall inherit the Earth. But the semi-geek won’t be far behind.

Back in April I wrote a piece about MPs’ web sites. I came to the conclusion that a large number of MPs have web sites that are over-complex and therefore cost more money to build and maintain than they should have done. They also fail in supplying basic functionality to users (for example, many have invalid web feeds) because they are often written from scratch by people who don’t really understand the web. I made the point that a real geek would have not written a new system, but would use some of the excellent open source or hosted services that are available.

I was reminded of this at the Open Tech conference in July[1]. There were a few talks that touched on this issue. In his “10 Cultures” talk, Bill Thompson discussed the differences between the geeks and the rest of the world and how the rest of the world is becoming dependent on the geeks. Immediately after Bill, Ben Goldacre’s talk touched on many of his usual subjects (the dearth of good science journalism and the lack of scientific literacy in the general population) before coming back round to echo some of Bill’s themes. Ben knows what tools he needs to build in order to fight his battles effectively and he knows that he’s not geek enough to build them. He therefore put out a call for a “geek posse” to help him to build the tools that he wants.

Both of these talks got me thinking about the geek/non-geek divide, but it wasn’t until I saw Will Perrin and Fran Sainsbury’s talk “Spread the Web” that I started to draw comparisons with the MPs’ sites that I’d written about earlier. Will and Fran talked about the problem of organisations who paid for expensive web sites many years ago and who are now left with a hard to maintain system that doesn’t give them a good presence on the web. This is exactly the same problem as I had recognised, but in a far wider context. It’s not just MPs who spend too much money on crap web sites. Anyone can do it. And many organisations do. Will and Fran aren’t hard-core geeks, but they know enough about WordPress and other similar systems to help organisations to replace their nasty old web sites with some newer and simpler which works.

Two weeks ago Lloyd Shepherd wrote about how he had set up a web site for his wife’s school using WordPress. Like Will and Fran, Lloyd is no geek (as he freely admits) but he knows enough about the technology to identify the best technology for the job and wrangle it into a web site which is probably more usable than the majority of school web sites. In his article, Lloyd asked why more people don’t do this and a really interesting discussion followed in the comments.

So here’s what we know:

  • There are many organisations out there who want web sites but don’t have the technical knowledge to decide how best to do it.
  • Many of these organisations (schools, charities and local groups would be good examples) are short of money.
  • The most effective way for these organisations to build web sites is often by using tools like WordPress and Drupal.
  • The IT professionals that most of these organisations approach for advice don’t seem to know about these solutions and end up proposing expensive proprietary monstrosities.
  • You don’t need to be total geek to build these sites, “semi geeks” like Lloyd, Will and Fran are perfectly capable of doing it.

I think that the problem is that knowledge of the WordPress or Drupal approach is pretty sparse outside of the geek (and semi geek) circles that I and most of my readers move in. Even most of the IT industry still seems unaware (or, perhaps, untrusting) of these open source solutions.

I don’t have a solution. I’m just pointing out obvious problems here. I suppose there’s some kind of education gap that needs to be filled. I’m considering asking my local council if I can run some kind of “building web sites” evening class to try to spread this knowledge.

But I think we also just need to offer to help. Do you know a cash-strapped charity or local school that could do with a bit of help rebuilding their web site? You don’t need to be an expert. This stuff really isn’t hard. And you’ll be helping to make the world (well, the web at least) a better place.

If you’re not a hard-core geek can you become a semi geek?

[1] I said I’d discuss it in more detail later – I didn’t expect it would be almost three months!

4 thoughts on “Building Web Sites is Easy

  1. I agree :)

    I try my best to remember …

    First, keep asking what they’re trying to do.

    People tell you they “need a website”, but they’re often trying to communicate and there are many ways to do that these days.

    Second, keep trying to find a simpler solution until it’s embarrassing how simple it is.

    For example, I kept seeing problems and thinking people needed a wiki, yet non geeks seem to struggle with them a lot.

    However a “word” doc on docs.google has most of the core elements of a wiki (revision control, shared, links) and many that a lot of wiki’s don’t have (no setup, no hosting, rich formating, decent access controls out of the box and a UI many people are familiar with).

    It’s not perfect, but it’s so much simpler than a wiki and it works more often because of it.

  2. I have made this type of hosted site for clients when it seemed the best option. One huge advantage is that the client can maintain the site themselves and don’t need to keep coming back to the site builder with updates. It’s cheaper for them and less hassle. I suppose some web designers don’t like that, though, as it’s an end to the income from that site!

  3. You mention wordpress and drupal. I know some folks are big on joomla too. Signing up to your site here I see you’re using Movable Type. Care to comment on pros and cons (or have any links to where to find good discussion and advice on such things)?

    I must admit I tend to write websites in HTML with a bit of bash or perl to automate stuff where needed, but I know that’s far from ideal. Trouble is from the little I’ve played around with drupal and joomla I don’t see whether they’re even capable of doing the things I want, typically pages with a mix of flowplayer videos and still pictures (or ideally slideshows) e.g. http://manband.org.uk/

  4. Yeah, Joomla is another one that I hear people talking about – but not to anywhere near the same extent as Drupal or WordPress.

    Yes, this site (and many of my sites) use Movable Type. It was about the only reasonable choice for blogs when I started blogging in 2002. Also it’s written in Perl so I stand at least some chance of being able to track down problems or develop plugins to add functionality. Of course, in almost eight years of using it I’ve never done that.

    I stick with MT because I know it. It’s far more powerful and flexible than most people realise. There are a number of plugins available which add lots of interesting stuff. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’d recommend it for new users. Drupal and WordPress are just as powerful and more more likely to be installed (or easily installable) on an average web hosting plan.

    I suspect that Drupal, WordPress and MT would all be capable of building the sites you’re talking about. Probably not out of the box though, you’d need to look at plugins and extensions.

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