Laterooms.com on UPSU.net

Just so you know: this page was imported from my old blog. Some pages were rather mangled in the process; my apologies if things don't quite look right.

(Don't read this - it's just another rambling stream of consciousness from me again...!)

We've just taken on board a new advertiser. Laterooms.com let you find hotels at short notice in pretty much any place in Europe (and beyond I think).

While I admit I'm not a huge fan of advertising - you create a website to serve a purpose, in our case to provide information for students and (hopefully) to get students chatting to each other, and putting adverts about things which the Union doesn't actually do kinda goes against that idea in my mind.

That said, like all of the UPSU.net advertisers, I'm glad that what's on offer is likely to be of some actual use to our students, so I'm happy to see them on here.

More importantly from my point of view, it gives me a chance to try some new things when it comes to working with pages on UPSU.net. If you're not familiar with the idea of a content management system, it's basically a way of creating pages which live on a database - rather than actual pages - and are only turned into a web page when they're requested by your web browser.

The benefits of this include being able to control your pages a lot more efficiently - I can change one setting and, voila, all pages on the site reflect that setting without having to update each and every page. There are loads of other benefits as well - one of the main ones being that almost anyone can, with a little bit of time, create web pages that are made from valid HTML and which are consistently created and laid out - but there are also some down-sides.

The biggest of these downsides is that you lose some flexibility in creating web pages compared to just creating an HTML file. This is most noticeable when people ask, "can we have a page that's X pixels wide, and put some PHP (a programme that runs on the server and can do many wonderful - and dangerous - things) code on it, and we want it to do X, Y and Z too?"

Often it's a case of saying, "No, we can't do it exactly like that, but I can do this, this and this which will work just as well" (or they're simply told to bog off if they're asking for the moon on a stick... Not that's not a regular occurrence... Honest!).

To put the Laterooms advert on UPSU.net, they wanted a web page on our site which lists their adverts. This is a good thing for advertisers for two main reasons: people reading their advert will tend to associate their brand with the Union, a name which they are more likely to trust, and because of the implied endorsement, people will be more inclined to trust the advertiser.

The second reason is purely that search engines like Google will see the advertiser's page on our site, and index the page - with all its links back to the advertiser's own website - and this should, in theory at least, increase the number of visitors to the advertiser's website.

The nature of the page meant that we had to add custom CSS styling to the page, and to be able to monitor links to and from the page to see which ones are working well and which ones don't receive as much traffic. We also needed to be able to adjust the META tags - used by search engines - to include keywords relevant to the advertiser's content.

With the original UPSU.net content management system - which we introduced last September - this would have been hard work to do and would probably not have been possible. Today, it was just a few clicks to build a very solid-looking, attractive page which did everything the advertiser wanted (at least, I hope it does!).

At the very least, it wouldn't have been as easy to do as it is now; since last September, we've worked hard to increase how much control people have over the pages they create in our Content Management System, with one of the most important being the ability to specify the web address of the page. As I mentioned earlier in this rambling post, everything's held on a database server - very few of the pages on UPSU.net actually exist as web pages on the server. Despite that, you can now type in www.upsu.net/sociallife/kinky, for example, and be taken to the Kinky page on UPSU.net.

It's these tricks which - while you probably don't notice them as users of the site - make all the difference between information being well-organised and findable, especially by search engines - and the site being an un-navigable mess of random, poorly-maintained content.

At the moment I'm trying to split my time 50:50 between working on the site's content - stuff that everyone can actually see - and the back-end management systems which make the site easier to maintain and run. As I'm only going to be a student for another 9 months maximum - whether or not I graduate, since the family's running out of money because of me (!) - I want to make sure that when I eventually leave the Union's employment, the people who have to take over my jobs here don't face an overwhelming task, and that they have plenty of help and information available to help them use the website.

Of course, when I do leave, I hope there will continue to be a position for someone like me to carry on the work I'm doing on UPSU.net to make it one of the best student websites in the Universe. Or at least the South of England... ;o) The last thing I want is for the next load of web bods to decide to
scrap UPSU.net and create a new website - I'd definitely cry!

Tomorrow's jobs: start creating a UPSU.net site map, sort out the NUS Conference pages, and look at tag clouds.

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