I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about how we rate websites. It seems to me there are three things on which websites must be assessed: looks and feel, content delivery (the back end) and the content itself.
Most website creators seem to spend a lot of time and effort on the first part, look and feel, without really paying much, if any, attention to the second two, which are as important, if not more so. Content is often treated as a second-class citizen, which is odd. It doesn’t much matter if your site looks like a million bucks — if it has no content or it’s slow to run or the links don’t work, forget about it. Nobody’s going to spend time on your site and all your Flash-y, graphical, design-cued toys aren’t going to change that.
Thankfully I don’t have to worry too much about how the site I provide content for looks and feels, nor how it is delivered. My brief is simple — write stories. Some days this is easy (thanks HP and Compaq). Other days this is less easy, but the resulting stories are the ones I really enjoy writing.
There aren’t too many sites in New Zealand that produce content themselves. Most are like the New Zealand Herald and Stuff websites, which largely reproduce stories from their respective newspapers.
A dedicated reporter or team of reporters is what’s needed for online news sites, but few do it that way. It’s expensive and there can’t be many sites in New Zealand making money of their own accord just yet.
How dedicated? Well, let me give you an example. By 9.30am I have generally read all I can find on IT and business from the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, NZ Herald, Stuff, Nzoom, Aardvark, Slashdot, The Register, BBC, CNN and occasionally newspapers from further afield — The Times of India being one recent example. I also go over some newsgroups and the IDG international wire to see what we’ve written that should be picked up here.
Online editor Kirstin Mills, in Dunedin, does much the same and we compare notes early on in the day. Then I go for coffee.
We’ve got it easy, however.
The grandfather of online publishing in New Zealand has to be Bruce Simpson at Aardvark. Did I say grandfather? I meant godfather. Spare a thought for him when you wake at 3am and can’t get back to sleep — he’s already trawling the wires looking for copy for his news site, 7amNews. He’s still there a dozen hours later although he does take a break in the middle of the day to build rockets.
I asked Nzoom’s online business editor Felicity Anderson about her day and was appalled to find she rolls out of bed at about 5am, logs on immediately to check the stock markets around the world and writes stories there and then if need be. She heads for the office and is supposed to have a shorter working day, but things have been a bit hectic on the economic front of late so she’s been working office hours as well.
Nzoom has a team of about a dozen content providers, each looking after their section of the site. Of course, Nzoom is a TVNZ property, so the site also uses video feeds, adding another dimension to the problem. So they’ve built a studio in the office and staff do pieces to camera as well as write stories.
(The first time I went to Nzoom's offices I was greeted by a small Jack Russell terrier and though he’s less visible these days you can often find yourself taking part in an impromptu game of soccer. A PlayStation is set up and everyone wears those little silver headsets to listen to their music. The whole thing is watched over by Glyn Jones, whose title is probably executive producer, but should more appropriately be official grown-up.)
The point is (and I know some of you were wondering), content shouldn’t be ignored or left to the last minute — it should be the focus of the site, regardless of whether the content is news or product information or whatever. Content should be easy to get to, easy to read or watch and easy to return to should you wish. All too often I see sites which don’t even tell customers how to contact the site’s owners, let alone make it easy to find new content. Some sites seem to be built more to display the developer’s design skill than to help the customer increase their revenue, and that’s sad. Content is and always will be king.