The continued commoditisation of technology allows web content to take the crown
The notion of content being 'king' is a well known one in media and entertainment.
It refers to the fact that no matter how good your marketing, distribution and 'value-add', without great content you are 'dead in the water'.
The television industry has known this for years as they have had to win over viewers in an increasingly competitive market - and why it pays big bucks for programming that will appeal to large audiences. Similarly the success of this very website has been made possible by the careful employment and selection of high quality content providers.
But until recently in the internet industry, content was very much the poor little brother of the more dominant and seemingly important, technology and design disciplines.
To explain further, websites and other eMarketing activities comprised these key areas.
Technology + Design + Content = Website
Technology was the technical infrastructure of websites - the 'coding' that allowed websites to function in a browser environment, from the basic to the complex.
Design was the appearance of the website or software in question. The creative component that drew you in to engage with the website and its arrangement on the page or visual interface.
Content was the actual purpose to visit - the words, pictures, animations and other material that provided the information or entertainment you went there for in the first place.
All of this would be underpinned by usability - the critical ability for users to navigate and utilise the website or software in a simple and intuitive fashion.
If you were to break down the costs of these components for an average website proportionately, its likely it would be 50% technology, 40% design and 10% content.
In the case of say a sports website, the technology would refer to the html, flash, Content Management System, video player etc etc and the computer code allows it to operate and that underpins the content.
The design would refer to the crucial look of the site, ensuring that it appealed to you and drew you to the material you were seeking.
And of course the content would be what you went there for - stories, pictures, video, statistics, interviews etc etc that provided the information and entertainment of the sport in question.
Content as an afterthought
The reason that content was seen as inferior to technology and design was that it was relatively cheap and easy to generate. By using a Word Document and a digital camera (or clip images) you essentially had the tools to provide some content.
But technology and design were harder. Significant technical knowledge was required to achieve a professional result, and this took expensive labour to achieve.
For example, websites originally were 'hand-coded' in the web's predominant programming language, html (hyper-text markup language). This meant that a web developer would actually write the instructions for web browsers to present and operate the content. If you want to see what this looks like, click on the View/Source menu item above left in your browser.
While all components are equally important to achieve a professional result, developments in technology itself has meant that website technology and to a lesser degree design, have come down in price, making it easier to achieve desirable results for an increasingly lower price.
The main catalyst to these developments has been the consolidation of 'Software as a Service' (SaaS) business models.
Replication leads to commoditisation
SaaS, also known as Application Service Provider or pre-built technologies operate by utilising pre-existing technology which is essentially rented by the provider (or in the case of community-developed Open Source, given away).
So instead of having a developer build your fully functioned website with features like Content Management Systems, secure shopping carts, extranets, galleries etc and paying the resultant labour cost, the technical infrastructures to these systems could be purchased ready to add design and content.
All software has developed in this way. Initially programmers were required to custom write each software program. Until moguls like Bill Gates realised that duplication and distribution was in fact a far more lucrative business model.
The money that SME operators could save by implementing these systems was enormous. What would have cost them tens of thousands of dollars was reduced in some cases to less than $1000 establishment and less than $50 a month including hosting and support.
There is still considerable confusion in the market about this monthly fee with many complaining it is expensive for 'hosting'. Of course the majority of the ongoing cost is not the hosting component at all, but essentially a license or lease for the technology which would in the past cost a small fortune to have built.
On the other hand, Open Source proponents claim their 'license' costs nothing at all. Which is all well and good, but what you don't pay in license fee you also don't get in guarantees, support or automatic upgrades - unlike their proprietary competitors.
While the design component was less easy to duplicate, smart SaaS providers found ways of providing professional design for a fraction of what it cost to design 'by hand'. The main way they did this was to separate the 'important' design areas such as header and overall colour schemes from the 'page' or main content areas.
This allowed the important design components to be fixed and locked, while giving operators with a minimum amount of skill the ability to add and edit content in much the same way they did with Word documents.
It also paved the way for website visitors to add content in this way as well, giving rise to interactive, 'Web 2.0' developments such as user reviews and later MySpace, Youtube and so on.
Content regains its crown
Given that both technology and design were now relatively affordable, it left only professional content to be added.
And as anyone who has put together a website of any standard knows, that is no small feat.
But now that technology and design have come down so far in price, the cost of preparing, search engine optimising and integrating that content is converse to its former position. On average, for a website built in this way, it is now more like 70% of the (time and financial) price, with design reduced to 20% and technology 10%.
Again this doesn't diminish the importance of achieving quality technology and design, it's just that their cost has been significantly reduced and is hence easier to achieve for SME operators.
Consequently, given that great technology and design are relatively easy to achieve, the emphasis is now on quality content to engage and inform your visitors - whether that is achieved by great writing, photography, animation, video, audio, features or even User Generated Content.
If you aren't experiencing this scenario, chances are you're paying too much for your technology and / or creative. The good news is that there are now independent providers who will impartially identify the best components for your budget and provide as much assistance as you need to implement in professionally.