Content Is King--An Interview with Mark Roma

As the Internet continues to evolve and influence our daily lives, writers, designers, and business owners must also keep pace with these changes. In an interview I conducted recently, I spoke with Mark Roma, CEO of Mark Roma Designs in Austin, Texas. Mark explains how important it is for businesses to advance with the times as the focus on the Internet shifts towards dynamically changing content.

EditorMuse: So, Mark, you've been in the design business for quite some time. What kind of changes have you noticed?
Mark Roma: I've been creating web sites since 1996. In that thirteen year time period, I've seen the gamut of web evolution. I saw the very first static pages, where the height of ingenuity was a repeating image background and animated .gif images. I also saw the boom about six or seven years ago when everyone wanted amazing flash animations on their web pages. However, the biggest single change in the web industry has been brought about by Google. The popularity of the search engine has shifted the focus in the web world from innovation to content. Clients are rightly concerned less with having visual gimmicks and more with how easily their site can be found. Based on Internet polls, design and content are nearly equally important. Studies show that a poorly designed site makes even the best content hard for an audience to find. Well designed sites with no dynamic or appealing content feel hollow and lose their audience.
EM: When designing, at what point do you need to start thinking about content?
MR: From the very beginning one should consider content. A web site is merely a vessel that contains the brand and information related to a business or person. Without the guiding vision of "what will this vessel contain?", it might become a bottle or a jar or a thimble. Good designers have experience with the advertising world and will collaborate with you in creating a vision for what your brand entails and what your clients want and need from a web site.
EM: And you feel that web sites built with a Content Management System (CMS) platform serve clients best?
MR: Yes. I believe that CMS platforms are the beginning of a new phase of Internet evolution. It is in a client’s best interest to stay on the cutting edge and avoid being left behind by their competition.
EM: What indications have you seen that web design is moving toward CMS and away from static HTML?
MR: Cost is the number one factor that has inspired the popularity of Content Management Systems. These database-driven systems allow business owners with relatively low technological prowess to manage and update their own sites. Rather than paying hourly fees for tech companies to update their sites or entrusting the updates to an amateur, business owners are able to save revenue and simultaneously add value for their clients by posting new content on the site. The second factor that has caused a boom in CMS popularity is that properly coded CMS sites tend to rank higher with search engines. Each time a user updates an existing page or adds a blog entry or event to their site, the database puts a time stamp on the content that marks it as "fresher" than older pages, and therefore "more important" to the programs that index web content for search engines like Google.
EM: What do businesses stand to lose by keeping a static HTML web page?
MR: There are three negative aspects to having a static HTML web page. First off, all web pages should undergo a redesign every two to three years, and with a static HTML web page, it is more costly to redesign the page and update the written content. Static sites tend to look and "feel" dated and will lose an audience for lack of interesting content. However, redesigning and losing traffic become less of a concern if the site can’t be found in the first place. The biggest problem is static HTML scores worse during search engine crawls than CMS pages.
EM: Is this only relevant to large companies and corporations?
MR: These considerations are also relevant to charitable organizations, musicians, artists, or any individual hoping to have their content seen by a large Internet audience. Anyone who is interested in spreading a message on the internet should be aware of these trends, as they might make the difference between obscurity and popularity.
EM: What have you had to do to stay ahead of the curve?
MR: It's less a matter of staying ahead of various web trends, and more about following the direction the technology is leading. When a new web browser comes out, a good designer has to learn what the quirks are with how it interprets various types of coding. When a new device, such as the i-Phone, becomes a popular way to surf the web, designers must consider its limitations. The best way to do this is to participate in an open and frank dialogue with members of the web design community. We learn from each other’s experiences, and we improve our skills through competition.
EM: What are the major CMS systems? Do they each serve a different purpose?
MR: There are three major open-source systems available today: WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla!. Most designers use open source (free) solutions because they have no cost or limitation for the software, and they're supported by huge international communities of peer programmers and designers. If a client asks for an obscure function on their web site, the odds are that someone out there has developed something similar and will offer suggestions on implementation. The differences between the three CMS platforms are mostly logistical. As a designer I will base my proposal for which should be used on how much content (visual and written) a client has, how often they need to update it, how comfortable they are with different types of interfaces, and what the long term goals are for site growth.
EM: Do you think the majority of design companies are noticing this shift?
MR: I think all design companies must notice the evolution of the Internet. Changing with the times is costly, and many firms that sell "web design" to clients use a sales model that doesn't allow for designer research. As a result, designers are rushed to stamp out nearly identical sites rather than crafting solutions unique to each client. The way to avoid such companies is simple: Look at their portfolio and speak directly to the designer. If a company cannot demonstrate a portfolio with variation of design (some sites are edgy, some look professional and clean, and some sites have lots of interesting functions), then they fall into the "cookie cutter" category. If a company won't let you speak to a designer with an actual degree in design, they are probably entrusting your branding and advertising dollars to someone who doesn't truly understand how visual identity works.
EM: What advice would you give to a business owner looking to redesign his or her web site?
MR: Beware any service that offers "easy to use site templates and hosting" at a monthly fee. I have seen many real estate agents and lawyers who signed multi-year contracts for these services only to find themselves stuck with a site that is broken and impossible for Google to index. Always ask a designer two threads of questions: First, ask why they chose the visuals they did. How is the proposed visual design reinforcing your brand? How does it reinforce the visual messages you've already created in your business cards and brochures? If a designer cannot answer these questions and show you the visual harmony in all your collateral, what they're creating could very well hurt your business. Second, ask some important technical questions. Where is my site hosted? Who owns my domain name? How easy is it to update my content? How long will it take to redesign in the future? How easily can we add functions like calendars and blogs? What guarantees are there that the site will not be coded using search engine harmful (i.e., tables) coding? If these questions aren't considered before the site is built, the result might be something that functions marginally for a few months and ends up costing thousands of dollars. It is far better to have a plan and spend the advertising dollars initially than to have some sort of unpleasant surprise generate unplanned costs.
EM: Thanks so much for your time. Your insights are really helpful. I think you’ve saved my readers quite a bit of time and money.
MR: My pleasure.

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