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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

Drupal builds websites and community for local businesses seeking solutions to complex content management challenges

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2012 First published in Business in Vancouver May 29 2012 High Tech Office column

A year ago, Open Road Auto Group had a set of 10-year-old websites in need of revision.

The Richmond-based consortium of import auto dealers wanted its sites to have a common look and feel and needed to more easily update content and videos. The sites needed centralized management and shared content while allowing dealers to individualize content.

There are design firms specializing in auto dealer websites, but according to Open Road marketing director Ben Lovie, Open Road didn’t want a site that looked like everyone else’s. Open Road evaluated a variety of content management systems (CMS) – software to build websites with a consistent design while allowing end-users to manage their own content.

According to Glenn Hilton, president of Burnaby web design/development firm ImageX Media, about 30% of the web is built using a content management system; the most popular is the free WordPress. Open Road ruled out commercial CMS software, partly to avoid ongoing maintenance costs.

Working with local web design house Fuse Interactive, Open Road chose the Drupal CMS. Important to Open Road: with over 16,000 plug-in modules, Drupal sites can include a wide range of customization. An open source project, Drupal is free of monthly fees.

The updated websites encourage interaction between dealers and potential customers. The sites integrate data and images from the Chrome auto data provider for up-to-date information on the 100-plus new car models sold by Open Road dealers. Website visitors can add reviews of car models and of their experiences with the dealers, which are automatically posted alongside Canadian Auto Press reviews.

Multi-language support has been built into the site, though translated content has not been posted. Also upcoming: video car reviews. Website traffic has grown by 50%, with more visits converting to sales.

Drupal has been created by a worldwide community of more than 15,000 volunteer developers, who make the software available for free.

Keeping them all going in the same direction can be a bit like herding cats, said Maple Ridge’s Angela Byron, but that’s her job as director of community development for Boston-based Acquia, a web development services and support company whose mission is to “empower enterprises with the open source social publishing system Drupal.”

As a Drupal Core Maintainer, she has a long-term commitment to overseeing the development of the software’s code base. Drupal is in its seventh major version; Drupal 8 is expected soon.

Byron noted that users often find the WordPress CMS easier to get started with.

Because WordPress was originally developed for a blogging service as websites grow, users often reach a point where they’ve outgrown what WordPress can easily provide.

Drupal, she admitted, has a steeper learning curve for ”normal people.” But Byron added that it’s more open-ended, which allows companies to use it to get exactly what they want out of their websites.

Independent freelance graphic designer and web developer Pete Digiboy agreed. Working with Drupal, he can build more dynamic and robust websites for his clients; like Byron, he compares working with Drupal modules to building with a set of Lego bricks – with no limits on what can be created.

Some businesses may express concern about Drupal’s open-source nature. While they might be happy to use the extended features provided (for free) by those thousands of add-in modules, they might be less pleased to develop features that then can be used – also for free – on their competitors’ websites.

Hilton is helping to organize a Vancouver Drupal Business Summit, Friday June 1, at UBC Robson Square, promising non-technical business people case studies of how local businesses have made their websites more effective (www.drupalsummit.com/city/vancouver).