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How to find and implement external content to add value to your site

July  1999
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To help boost growth and value, Webmasters are constantly trying to find new types and formats of content to enhance their users' experience. Due to resource and time limitations, this content is often obtained from external providers, and could be anything from a search box from a leading search engine to top headlines from an online news provider. In either case, a Webmaster needs to know what kind of content is out there, which companies are providing it, and how to accommodate it in his or her design. This month Allen talks about several of these pluggable content components, the companies which provide them, and the methods for seamlessly implementing them to add value to your pages. (2,500 words)

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The birth of portals has ushered in a new era in content sharing and reselling. The owners of a site no longer have to actually hire employees who specialize in the type of content they want -- they just have to partner with a company who provides it for them.

Web sites today are in business because they have something to offer -- and that something can be a product, a service, or simply information. However, not every company has an army of developers and writers to generate all the content that it wants to have available for its users. Perhaps the site's creators would like to tap into an e-commerce revenue channel, or perhaps they would like to have streams providing audio content to enhance the user's experience. Heck, they may even be running a new ISP that needs almost all of its content given to it in a look it defines. So what's a Webmaster to do? Well, if you can beat 'em, join 'em!

By partnering with other sites, often through an affiliate program, you can incorporate external content into your pages. By doing this, you can increase the amount of content, and therefore the value, of your site, and you can do it quickly. You can provide content and services that you have neither the bandwidth nor the experience to generate yourself. Do you think it would be cool to have sports scores on your home page? No problem -- you can get that from another site. Want to be able to sell computer software from your search pages? That service can be provided by another site as well.

In this month's article, we are going to take a look at three different types of pluggable content: text-based, e-commerce, and audio/video streams. We'll discuss why you should consider adding this information to your pages, as well as how to best implement the features that provide it. The focus will be on what kind of questions you should ask your suppliers, and what kind of information you should be providing them. Let's add some value, shall we?

Text-based content
When I talk about text-based content, I am referring to basic textual information that can be provided to your site. This is not an audio file, nor a Java applet, but rather pure text. Sure, what you receive will require some formatting and design, but no technology surprises lurk behind the actual content.

Text-based content often comes in the form of news, sports scores, or weather forecasts. Any of you that have a personalized page on a site have subscribed to these blocks of data to build your page. I, for instance, have a personalized page that has the weather in my area, technology news, world news, and a few stocks (yes, even I like to see how my fellow Internet companies are doing). These blocks of information are often pulled from another provider. A logo may be included as part of the block, in order to identify clearly the origin of the information.

Now, including external content on a personalized page is a little different from including it on your professional site. Most of the content on the personalized pages is built from external sources -- you only need a block here or there. However, if you are building a new site, or if you need a site for your users to call home (as an ISP would), there are companies that specialize in providing all the external content for you. A good example of such a company is Planet Direct, which specializes in providing pages for ISPs (see our Resources section below for their Web page).

Planet Direct partners with content providers to build blocks of data. This gives an ISP the ability to select from a large number of components for their users' homepages. Next, Planet Direct will customize individual pages to fit user needs. If you don't need a whole bunch of components, Planet Direct will let you have access to a minimal set -- if you want only classified ads, for example, you won't have to take baseball scores along with them.

Whether you are having a whole site of text components built on blocks by someone, or you are only subscribing to pieces, there are certain things you want to consider -- things that will help you decide how to integrate the content on your site as easily as possible.

Begin by asking yourself how you will get the information. Is it sent to your servers from the outside and updated at regular intervals, or will your partners simply give you HTML tags to call the content? If the content is sent to you, how is it done? Is it in a manner that compromises your security? Can you still have a secure method to obtain the content, even though there needs to be regular and automated transmissions of data?

And what about the HTML tag method? In text-based content, the tags sent to you will have to have the ability to call external HTML files, using <iframe>, <frame>, <ilayer>, <layer>, and <script> tags. Are you comfortable with that? Remember that it is not uncommon for these tags to violate rules for content creation and display. As a starting point, consider the following questions, as examples of the types of issues you will be addressing:

These are all questions you should ask your content providers. They are the ones who must give you the tags, and they should know all the workarounds that will do the job under most circumstances. Sure, you could figure it out yourself, and you may even be able to help point out potential problems to the content providers, but the actual work here should be primarily their responsibility, not yours. Your role is to test their code and play devil's advocate as much as possible. Give it a real run for its money, and see how it works.

Good content providers will work with and for you to get their content on your pages. They will know a lot about HTML, and will be aware of issues to avoid. They will also be able to help you work through any conflicts, such as competing stylesheets or JavaScript. The providers may not know everything about all browsers and tags, but they should be know everything that pertains to the information being delivered.


E-commerce store fronts
A second type of external content you may be considering is an e-commerce store front. No matter what kind of information you are providing on the Web, someone is probably selling products related to it. I remember the days when I had to search for someone selling software, hardware, or games. Well, that isn't necessary anymore. Even the browsers make it easier, with their What's Related buttons and similar technology. If you're using a browser as advanced as Netscape Navigator 4.06 or Internet Explorer 5, all you have to do is surf to a computer site in order to access a menu with a whole list of related sites -- many of them dedicated to e-commerce. This makes it easier for users to click away from your site to find someone selling the product concerning which you offer information.

In considering an e-commerce hook for your site, you should do a little research. Determine the top five suppliers of a specialty product or service in your area. Once you have it down to five, start researching each of the sites in detail. Check to see if it has an affiliate program. Take a look at its e-commerce implementation -- step through and order or get a demo. Does it provide the functionality that you would like to have on your site? Try to find out if it has happy customers. Ask some of your friends if they have had any interaction with the site and what they thought. Was it a good experience? Did they get what they thought they were getting? The last thing you want is your users calling you complaining about functionality over which you have no control.

One of the best solutions I have seen as a plugin e-commerce solution is CyBuy (see Resources). CyBuy has a smaller, second window pop up when the user clicks on a banner to buy something. The user is then stepped through three of four screens; in rapid succession, the user completes the purchase, gets a receipt, and is sent an e-mail confirmation. The CyBuy window then closes, and since it was a daughter window, the user never leaves the site he or she was on before clicking the link. Talk about a great solution for impulse buying -- this is super cool! It's almost like having your own personal checkout person walking behind you at the mall, so that you can buy stuff when you want instead of having to collect everything at each store, proceed to the checkout area, make a purchase, and return to your shopping. If you are considering adding an e-commerce block to your content, then definitely check this place out. It is fairly new, but contact information is available on their site.

Other good examples include for books, gifts, and other items, or Cyberian Outpost for computer hardware and software (see Resources for links to both). Overall, you should look for a well-rounded provider -- one that has good site design, a stable affiliate program, an easily navigable e-commerce interface, and good service.

Once you've found a good e-commerce provider, you can start worrying about incorporating it into your site. Just as is the case with the company that sends you text blocks, you need to understand how an e-commerce provider interfaces with your pages. What goes on your page is only going to be some HTML that passes an assigned ID -- the provider takes it from there. The thing you need to worry about and understand is what happens to users once they click on these links. Will the e-commerce site replace your site in the users' browser window, or does a second window pop up and take them to the provider's site to perform the purchase, leaving your site available for browsing? If they do leave your site completely, can they return to it after the purchase has been made or if they decide to cancel? Do you get credit for additional purchases made on the provider's site, even though the initial link might have been for a specific item?

Perhaps the most important consideration among these is this: will the users know that they have left your site, and will they be able to continue browsing if they either cancel the order or complete it? If they don't or can't return to your site, then there may be a problem. It's great that you've plugged in an e-commerce solution, but what's the value to you if it sends all your users away from your site? This defeats the purpose.

Audio and video content providers
The last matter I want to take a look at is the process of adding external audio and video to your site. At this point, there are several companies out there that provide these streams -- and each has its own method of incorporating its streams into your content. But most companies simply provide links on your site to their own content, which is really no different than supplying a link to a static image on their server. Well, just a month or so ago I came across a slightly new concept, delivered by Westwind (see Resources for their home page).

Westwind's content is different in that it is tailored to your specific needs. The company will give you relatively simple tags to put on your site, which call for Westwind content. Westwind will then work with you to customize the look and feel of that content, so that it blends in without any conflict. Next, Westwind will obtain providers to provide content, like daily news, weather, etc. Westwind will customize the stream by plugging your site (i.e., "This broadcast brought to by ...") so that it appears as though you have actually created and delivered the stream yourself. Finally, their staff handles the delivery of these streams, so you don't have to go out and buy the powerful servers and software that are usually necessary to provide this sort of multimedia material.

Now all the pieces are in place. All you have to do is put the tags on your pages and let Westwind take care of the rest. The best part is that the content is provided in a pop-up window (fear not, browsers which do not support JavaScript are handled gracefully as well), so that your users can continue to browse while listening to or watching the stream. Seeing this work is very cool, so if you are interested in this type of content, take a look at what Westwind's been doing.

I hope that this month's article has popped some ideas into your head about using external content, and has answered some useful questions on the subject. I know that I often find myself saying, "I have this great idea, but I don't have the time to think it completely through and get the content for it." Well, this can be the answer to your problems; it can provide a quick and easy solution to get the content you want in the format you desire. Compared to doing it all yourself, the overhead is small, if not negligible.

Do remember that external content is not the solution for everything, and should be carefully considered. Make sure you partner with respectable companies, and that you understand how things work and what happens in times of failure. Just like any agreement, try to avoid a bad experience by doing the proper research up front.

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About the author
Allen WykeR. Allen Wyke has developed intranet pages and Internet sites for several leading companies, and often speaks on the topic of HTML. His writing credentials include coauthoring Pure JavaScript, The Perl 5 Programmer's Reference, and The Official Netscape Navigator 4 Book, as well as contributing to The HTML 4 Programmer's Reference and HTML Publishing for the Internet 2nd Edition.

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