Web site or blog?
Site architecture

Static site or CMS?

Expression Web
ABOVE: Editing a page in Expression Web's "design" view. The left pane lists folders and pages; formatting styles are on the right.

by Durant Imboden, Europe for Visitors

If you've decided to be a blogger, the "Static site or CMS?" question doesn't apply to you, because a blogging platform like WordPress or Movable Type (or a "hosted solution" like WordPress.com, Blogspot, or TypePad) is a CMS.

However, if you've decided to follow my recommendation and build an "evergreen" travel-planning site that's organized by topics and subtopics, you'll need to decide between two very different styles of Web publishing:

1. A static or "flat file" site

With a static site, you create pages offline, using anything from a basic text or HTML editor (if you're still living in 1995) to a modern "authoring tool" such as Microsoft Expression Web (for Windows) or Adobe Dreamweaver (for Windows or Macintosh).

When you're ready to publish the pages, you click a "Publish" command or use an external FTP program, and the files are copied from your computer to your hosting service's Web server. (We use Pair Networks to host Europeforvisitors.com, mostly because Pair has an industrial-strength data center with staff who are on duty 24/7.)

Advantages of"static" or "flat file" Web publishing are:

  • You can organize content however you like, using hand-designed menus and linking schemes to help users navigate your site. (With a CMS, your site architecture may dictate navigation menus unless you're skilled at workarounds.)
  • Because you're designing and editing pages offline, your work won't be slowed down by bad Internet connections or "server lag"at your hosting service.
  • In theory, at least, pages tend to display faster when they're stored as "flat files" on the server instead of being assembled on the fly from database records, as they'd normally be with a CMS. (In practice, most users are unlikely to notice the difference.)
  • With a static site, there's less to go wrong than there is with a content-management system--and in the unlikely event that a file is corrupted or erased, you can simply recopy the file from your computer to the server instead of having to wrestle with databases or seek help from tech support.

2. A content-management system, or CMS

TypePad Pro 

ABOVE:  TypePad Pro, a blogging platform powered by Movable Type, can be used as a simple CMS.

A content-management system is a "server-side application" that works much like blog or forum software: 

You use Web-based forms to enter your text, photos, etc. into a database. 

When a reader types a URL into a Web browser, the server doesn't fetch a static page--it grabs the various database records, combines them with a template, and dispatches the assembled page to the user. 

(There are exceptions to this rule--in some cases, pages are preassembled and stored in a cache--but the principle of "assembled on the server" still holds true.)

Advantages of a CMS are:

  • You don't need an authoring program on your computer: You can enter text and photos from anywhere, using any device with an adequate keyboard and Web browser.
  • A CMS is desirable for large sites with many reporters and columnists, since writers can enter content via their Web browsers instead of sending it to headquarters by e-mail, and editors can make changes in situ before hitting a "Publish" button.

Making your choice

  • If you're a liberal-arts type who prefers to use software as a writing and editing tool, you'll probably find it easier--and less frustrating--to use the static or flat-file approach. (We've used multiple generations of FrontPage and its successor, Expression Web, at Europe for Visitors since we graduated from "hand-edited" HTML code in 1996; Tom Brosnahan, a longtime Macintosh owner, uses Dreamweaver for his popular Turkey Travel Planner site.)
  • If you come from a programming background, or if you share your bed with a coding aficionado, a CMS may be tempting--especially if you plan to operate a news-oriented site with many items and contributors, and you like the idea of having software organize your pages for you.
  • When you make your decision, do it for the right reasons. I've known too many writers who have fallen for arguments like "The cool kids use Joomla" or "Real publishers use Drupal" and spent months struggling with CMS software when they could have been publishing content and earning revenue. Unless you hope to earn your living as a Web designer and write about travel on the side, your writing and publishing skills--not your software skills--are the keys to productivity and success on the Web.

Next article: "Site architecture"


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