Monday, April 13, 2009

Version Control for the Web

Does #lazyweb work on blogs?

So I've had an idea. And it may be what finally gets me to implement a version control system around here.

A little over a year ago, I did a survey with our website visitors (by “our website” I mean I expected the biggest problem to be reported would be trouble locating information. I have full access to the server and have worked directly with the file structure for nearly 2 years now and I still have trouble finding stuff. I was surprised to see that problems with findability were the 2nd most commonly reported. #1 went to outdated info.

I assume the 2 problems feed off each other. You spend 15 minutes trying to find something, and then once you finally locate it, it's obviously out of date. I know I'd be upset if placed in the same situation. And unfortunately that's a situation we place our website visitors in every day.

I can publish content updates once they cross my desk, but I can't summon them from thin air. But I also realize we've got a lot of busy people on this campus who may not have the time to proofread their web content and alert me when updates are needed. I could use that as an excuse, pass the buck, and move on with my life. But I don't like that.

One thing I've done in the redesign is to link to content from a single authoritative source as often as possible. For example, the current site often lists course and curriculum info. (I'm using our Health Information Technology program as an example here, but most of our programs follow this model.) Now that's important info for both current and potential students, so I understand why we'd want to publish it. But that's redundant info that can quickly fall out of date. The catalog is the definitive source for course descriptions and curricula info. I can also count on that getting updated every year. Thankfully, Acalog, our 3rd party online catalog service, makes it possible to link to individual program descriptions. So the redesigned program pages send people there for the course and curriculum info.

That's one less point of possible failure. I know those pages will be kept up to date. I no longer have to worry about them, and neither do the deans and program directors.

Along the same lines, I'm thinking about a way to implement a reporting system that could alert me to each page that has gone X days without an update. I figure a good version control system would support this, but at this stage that's a big assumption on my part.

But if that's possible, I could create a system where the people responsible for providing content would be notified when a page could potentially be out of date. If nothing has changed in the past X days to render the content out of date, that's fine, but I'd like to be able to document that. I don't want to be seen as The Web Nazi, but if the first gentle reminder fails to get any feedback, I could follow up in a month or so including traffic figures from Google Analytics. “X people have viewed potentially out of date information on since [date of initial notice]”

So my goals for this week are to generate a deliverable for my user centered design course (I tried a research project, but that failed to materalize once I hit the recruitment stage, still learned a lot though) and researching SVN, Git, CVS, etc.

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