Growing websites

Janice Oliver, National Land and Water Resources Audit, Canberra ACT AUSTRALIA.

Dave Johnson, EarthWare Systems (Australia) Pty Ltd, Canberra ACT AUSTRALIA.


A website can be viewed as an organic object, which passes through various phases from conception to maturity. Growing websites need to be managed as they evolve and critical stages may require extensive redesign and devolution of responsibility.


Few webmasters are party to the ‘life cycle’ of an organisation, where the development of the website coincides with its conception and growth. The National Land and Water Resources Audit (known as the Audit) which is a program of the Natural Heritage Trust is one such example. Between October 1997 and June 2001, the Audit has the mission to provide nationwide assessments of Australia’s land, vegetation and water resources to support sustainable development now and in the future.

The Audit’s Communication Strategy has established, maintained and expanded linkages with stakeholders by employing a suite of verbal, print and electronic communication mechanisms. The Audit WebSite [HREF1] integrates all these methods of information and product delivery.

The Audit is a complex, evolving system that needs to respond to external interests. Consequently, the development of the Audit WebSite has required flexibility and adaptability. This life cycle of activity can be described in terms of stages of growth from site preparation to maturity.

Stages of growth

Growing in the biological sense, i.e. the ‘life cycle’ is analogous to growing ‘websites’. The ground needs to be prepared which includes a lot of planning. The seed needs to be planted i.e. ideas need to be exchanged. The seed emerges, ‘fresh’ yet ‘fragile’, as it ‘launches’ itself into the world. What follows is growth, so much happening in so little time. Pruning shapes and directs. Then in the spring there is the flowering, which results in new ‘growth’ such as child websites and links to external sites.

These stages are described in the table below and form the basis for our presentation.



planning process

define "purpose of website"

determine user / stakeholder needs

graphic design including "look-and-feel"

develop templates and style sheets






develop pilot website (trial plots)

check user acceptance

refinement of design and implementation

go-ahead decision




full-scale planting

loading of website content
user commitment
launch of website, publicity and marketing

begin to service user needs

initiate future planning




growth of content on website

evolving functionality of website

addition of new areas of website




building loyalty, involvement and ownership

increasing user base



"how well did we do"

good - loop back to full scale planting


- "pull the plug"

- continue but down size

- change direction

bumper crop - the beginning of the problem




growth outstrips infrastructure

site overload and difficulty in maintenance

requirements include:

  • efficiency improvement

    document management processes

    site management processes

    what-to-do-about-it decision





pruning, weeding, re-planting

redesign of website structure

devolution through development of child websites

adapt website to meet changing needs of users






easily maintained website

readily adaptable website

automatic content generation

tracking of content for responsibility and revision

acting cooperatively with child and partner websites (web of webs)

testing external and internal links before delivery



Focus of this paper

As an ‘emergent’ website continues to grow it becomes increasingly difficult for one person to have a complete overview of all of the content on the website.

We have progressed into this growth phase in the Audit WebSite Project and the focus of this paper is on the concepts that we have developed and the procedures that we are putting into place in order to efficiently manage the continued growth of the Audit WebSite.

Development of ideas

Outsourced print documents


Microsoft Word documents

Microsoft Excel spreadsheets

Microsoft Project plans


HTML web documents

web graphics

PDF web documents

(?) Microsoft Word documents

Source documents

The content of the Audit WebSite is derived from a variety of source documents including material prepared for hardcopy print publication and working documents produced during project generation and reporting.

Most of the documents that we deal with are produced from the Microsoft Office suite of programs including Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The authors of these documents include Audit Management Unit members as well as consultants from a range of government agencies, research organisations and the private sector.

The Audit has attempted to introduce some standardisation amongst this disparate author community in the use of these software tools and has met with varying degrees of success. This standardisation effort includes the development and distribution of style guides and document templates.

Web documents

The Audit WebSite content is developed from source documents using a variety of conversion and web authoring software tools.

As far as possible standardisation of the web content is achieved through the use of templates and a consistent approach to the preparation of the web content.

In order to produce accurate HTML code that is consistently presented in a variety of browsers we have found it necessary to employ web authoring tools which contain rigorous code checking and do not introduce unwanted code - our present choice for this is DreamWeaver from MacroMedia although other tools are available.

An important component of web document creation is site checking. For this process we currently use Adobe’s SiteMill and again other tools are available.

Automated content generation

We have tried to reduce the problem of maintaining web content by developing systems, which minimise the maintenance requirements of the website content.

We have developed software, which automatically generates all the website navigation aids for any document, employing a form of server-side includes. As a result the format of the source documents are simple and compact with headers, footers, navigation aids and background graphics being automatically generated and added for delivery. This delivery document is generated on a nightly basis and published to the public website.

Navigation between documents is supplied as a set of graphic buttons and text links for all documents in the same directory as the document, all directories in the parent hierarchy and all directories at the top level of the website.

Links between documents, other than those automatically provided, are normally limited in number and commonly refer to other parts of the same document or to a document on an external site.

The Audit is required to notify users when they are leaving the Audit WebSite and hence links to external references are validated on a nightly basis and transition through an exit portal advising the user that they are exiting the site. Advice is provided on links which are invalid and the delivered document is modified so that all delivered documents contain links which are valid. [Valid links are those which find a document which can be delivered - there is no process to check that the link is logically correct.]

A common feature of many websites is the site map - this is automatically produced as a result of the nightly document search for valid links. Additionally, a listing of documents which have been modified or recently added to the system is also created.

Many of our users have slow communication links or older browsers and hence we have provided a simple version of the site which does not require Java Script and which is suitable for minimal graphic download. This version of the website is created during the nightly document generation process.

Document management

During an early phase of the development of the Audit WebSite it was found necessary to track the movement of source documents, their conversion into web documents, and the dates of these documents. This was carried out by a combination of physical and electronic filing techniques and supported by a manually maintained spreadsheet.

As the Audit WebSite grew it was found that this became impractical.

The management of source documents, and particularly later versions of these, has become a critically important aspect of the website development.

We have therefore embarked on the implementation of a document tracking system, which allows both source, and web documents to be managed through a web forms interface.

Document tracking system

The Audit requires that all documents, which are being published either in hardcopy or electronic form, to be passed through a rigorous authorisation process aimed at quality control and management of risk.

Once a document has been finalised it is then registered in the document tracking system through a web forms interface which requires the user to supply information including author name and contact details, the location of the web version of the document, and document version. Version numbers are assigned based on whether the supplied document is new, a major variation of a previous document, or only contains minor changes.

This captured information is added to the document tracking system database. The status of any source document can therefore be found by any authorised user through a web interface.

The converted web document is also registered in the database through a web forms interface which requires the user to supply information including the person doing the conversion, the location of the document and the date of the conversion.

The web document is then delivered to a private site and validated by the Audit staff person designated as being responsible for that area of the website. Once the validation is completed then the database is updated accordingly and the document published on the public site.

Minor changes to source documents require subsequent changes to web documents. These are difficult to manage as they often involve only changing a few words. A document variation note is created which records the changes made to the source document and the changes are then tracked through the system. Major changes are essentially handled as with a new document.

An important component of website management is maintaining the timeliness of documents - one document may be relevant for a week while another may not require changing for a year. Hence one of the requirements of the document tracking system was to capture the "use-by" date of the document or at least to seek a frequency with which to examine the document to see if it needed to be changed.


At the time of writing this article much of this development is in conceptual design stage however by the time the paper is delivered we should have implemented the system and obtained useful experience in its usage.


We believe that a website can be viewed as a living organism, which passes through various phases from conception to maturity. Many websites do not address the issues arising from continued growth, are not managed beyond the initial phase of enthusiastic growth and are so difficult to maintain that further activity ceases.

Like many other complex evolving systems, website growth needs to be properly managed in order to contain the problems of content and site management. We have developed a number of procedures to efficiently manage both source documents as well as the website documents. We have also developed automated procedures for generation of site navigation aids and site management information.

As the Audit WebSite becomes more complex, containing ever larger amounts of content sourced from an increasing number of people, the above concepts and procedures will deliver an efficiently managed website which will continue to serve the needs of the Audit community.

Hypertext references

National Land and Water Resources Audit WebSite
"Growing websites" AusWeb99 Conference presentation


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