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Reviews /

Changing the oil on your web site

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This quartet of content maintenance tools can keep your turbocharged site out of the garage.

Would you buy a used car with broken trim and squeaky brakes? Doubtful. Nor should you expect your Web site visitors to put up with broken links, stale pages and long, winding paths to the content they need. Active maintenance is necessary to keep even the best-constructed sites in showroom shape.

We looked at four tools that help combat Web site problems. We found that when you're talking about content management, a picture isn't always worth a thousand words, broken links aren't the only things to watch for and continued vigilance is the best approach.

Each product we tested provides site mapping and link checking. They offer a variety of other maintenance utilities, such as page quality checking, and all are relatively easy to install and use. They all also have a common defect: You can only view HTML files with these tools using the client's default Web browser or the program's limited built-in browser. We think this is a serious oversight, given the numerous cross-browser coding problems that occur in many sites.

How we did it

We tested each product on three sites: a small site with less than 100 pages, a midsize site with between 1,000 and 5,000 pages, and a large site with more than 15,000 pages hosted locally and remotely. We made sure our test sites had errors, included broken links, slow pages, old pages, those with HTML problems and orphan files.

We also evaluated live sites located on a local LAN as well those as on the Internet that used Allaire's Cold Fusion and Microsoft's Active Server Pages, as well as frames, forms, Java applets and dynamic HTML.

We ran the same tests on two different test systems - a Compaq Presario with a 333-MHz Celeron CPU and 92M bytes of RAM running Windows 98, and a 600-MHz Pentium III Dell OptiPlex GX1 with 256M bytes of RAM running NT Workstation 4.0 with Service Pack 4. Both ran the same battery of test cases.

Coast Software's WebMaster 4.1 and WatchFire's Linkbot Pro 4.1 provided the most powerful and useful maintenance functions. At first glance, Brooklyn North Software Works' Blueprint 1.2.1 appeared to provide similar functionality, but it was not as capable or polished as WebMaster and Linkbot Pro.

Mercury Interactive's Astra SiteManager 2.0's main benefit is a unique visual approach to site management, but it lacks the reporting flexibility of the other management tools. WebMaster edged out Linkbot Pro to win our Blue Ribbon Award because it provides many more options for fixing a link problem once it is detected.

WebMaster: The content manager's dream

Coast's WebMaster won our Blue Ribbon Award, but it placed second to Linkbot Pro for link checking. It did not correctly identify internal page anchor problems and did not explicitly deal with JavaScript links.

However, correcting a problem link with the LinkWizard utility that ships with WebMaster is a snap. All references to a modified link within a site are corrected at once. You can even add a message noting that a page has been moved. Moving and adding files and creating folders on a Web site become trivial tasks with this tool. From any map or list of Web files generated by the product, you can view the specific pages and edit them directly from within a browser.

WebMaster does not provide as many default quality checks as Linkbot Pro, but it does include basic checks for large files and orphan files. WebMaster also includes a powerful checking facility called PageRules. Using this tool, you can check pages for arbitrary text, tags or a specific technology, such as frames or JavaScript. You can create a PageRule to ensure that dynamically generated pages contain the proper content, that site standards are upheld and that files are consistent across a site. To augment PageRules, WebMaster includes powerful global search and replace functions.

WebMaster has a few other advanced features. For example, the site-comparison feature provides a nice way to compare a previous scan of a site to a current scan and track any changes. Even more interesting is the ActiveScan feature, which lets you analyze form-driven pages or those that contain dynamically generated content. The tool remembers all keystrokes and mouse movements made during the ActiveScan snapshot and replays them when a Web manager needs to analyze the page. This feature is highly useful for testing sites in which step-by-step procedures are important, such as electronic commerce sites.

The reporting facilities provided by WebMaster are capable of summarizing all basic checks, such as link problems, orphans, large files or pages failing PageRules. A scheduler can be used to automate when reports are run and then to mail the results to the parties responsible for site maintenance.

As with all the other tools reviewed, installation was a breeze, and setting up a site analysis report using WebMaster was just as simple. The tool is equally capable of managing local and remote sites. A key management facility is WebMaster's ability to map an analyzed remote site to an FTP server, which allows you to easily edit remote files.

While at $495, Coast's WebMaster is the most expensive tool reviewed, a Web manager should gladly pay the extra money for the powerful content management facilities this product provides.

Linkbot Pro: Site quality is Job One

Linkbot Pro from WatchFire - formerly known as Tetranet Software - provides the greatest number of site-quality analysis features of the tools we reviewed.

Linkbot Pro was the most capable of the four tools we looked at in pinpointing link problems. The software was the only product to correctly identify broken anchors used for intrapage links, and it was able to identify many JavaScript link types. Linkbot Pro was also able to verify FTP links and provide some syntax checking on other links, such as "mailto" links.

Once broken links were identified, it was fairly easy to repair them using the same tool. Linkbot Pro also integrates well with HTML editors, such as Microsoft's FrontPage, Macromedia's DreamWeaver and Allaire's HomeSite. You can get to these third-party tools via a Linkbot Pro menu.

The real strength of Linkbot Pro is its focus on site quality. The tool is able to identify site problems such as slow pages, old pages, orphan files and pages that require too many clicks to reach. You can set the thresholds that determine which pages are too big, old or deep. The tool also provides a quality metric for an analyzed site based on the number of errors and site size. This is useful for site managers who want to track the quality of their sites over time. Tracking a site is easy using a scheduler that can be set to run reports at predetermined times.

Linkbot Pro can also detect pages that have common HTML problems, such as lack of image attributes, missing page titles and missing metatags, which are useful for search engines. The tool also provides integration with the popular CSE HTML Validator to check page syntax, but this tool can only perform validation one page at a time and is not well-integrated with Linkbot Pro.

Linkbot Pro fell short on site mapping. It only shows site information in directory tree style. However, its ability to filter all types of content made it easy to navigate sites without a visual map. Unfortunately, Linkbot Pro doesn't provide any site-comparison features. However, unlike the other tools, Linkbot Pro does offer a nice image-catalog feature showing thumbnails of all site images.

While Linkbot Pro identifies problems well, its site management utilities could be improved. It is difficult to use to update remote sites via FTP for anything other than removing orphan files. We found the software really wanted a locally mapped drive if we were going to make any content changes. Additionally, Linkbot Pro does not provide a drag-and-drop interface for managing files like WebMaster does.

However, Linkbot Pro's reporting is excellent. You can easily customize the content of the provided reports. Other convenient features include the ability to schedule site analysis and a feature that reads site log files to pinpoint errors and shows basic page usage statistics.

Installing the product was easy, but it did force us to reboot our test machines. Linkbot Pro easily checked remote and local sites.

For site-quality checking and link checking, Linkbot Pro is hard to beat and is a bargain at $295. However, for site management facilities, Coast's WebMaster is a better choice.

Blueprint: Back to the drawing board

Brooklyn North's Blueprint is a basic link-checking tool for Windows 98 and NT systems, but it lacks some important features found in other products. Blueprint is more than capable of checking basic site links, but it failed to deal with advanced link forms.

For example, the product did not identify missing style sheets referenced by the HTML element. It also didn't validate JavaScript links. It completely missed checking internal page links that jump within a single document, such as a "back to top" anchor.

The product is focused only on Web-based links because it can only identify - but not check - other link forms, such as those going to FTP sites.

Once you use Blueprint to identify broken Web links, you can easily repair them using the same tool. However, we couldn't use the product to manage local files because it always forced links to be corrected via FTP. However, you could edit links manually, as Blueprint provides basic HTML editing, along with some integration with external editors, such as HomeSite.

An interesting analysis option with Blueprint is its ability to save a copy of the site locally during analysis, which is useful to avoid performing maintenance on a live site. None of the other products we tested provide this site-copying feature. The product also ships with a scheduler so you can set up site analysis for off-peak times.

While Blueprint can handle link-checking tasks on a simple site, it lacks any significant site-quality checking abilities. The product did not identify orphan files, old files, slow files or those with common HTML problems.

The reporting facilities provide some basic site statistics, such as the number of files and file sizes, but because there is no filtering capability that could help a Web manager pinpoint problem files, the reports are of limited value.

In terms of site mapping, Blueprint provides only directory-style and simple tree mapping. Content types are indicated by icons in the map, but the product does not recognize all common Web content types - it completely ignored Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Files in our tests.

Installation of the product was easy. Immediately upon start-up, Blueprint gets down to business by prompting you to specify information regarding local and remote Web sites.

While Blueprint might be adequate for link checking in a simple site, it lacks too many important features. Its interface is not nearly as polished as those of most of the other products, and the program crashed numerous times during testing. If you don't want to spend more than $300, Linkbot Pro ($295) is a better choice for site management than Blueprint, which comes in at $299.

Picture Web sites with Astra SiteManagerIf you don't want to spend any money but you still want to add site management to your toolbox, Mercury Interactive's Astra SiteManager is your best choice. However, SiteManager's content-management tools aren't as powerful as they might appear.

Starting a scan for links on a remote site was easy, but SiteManager lacks the ability to browse a file system and therefore forces the user to create an awkward file-based URL for any site residing on a local drive. This is a woeful interface oversight.

SiteManager easily identified basic link problems on a site, but zooming into problem areas using the map was a real hassle. SiteManager found LINK references to style sheets, but ignored non-HTTP link types. The software didn't deal with JavaScript links properly and couldn't find broken intrapage jump anchors. SiteManager does provide the ability to deal with generated pages, including those triggered from standard forms. This was a nice feature; only WebMaster provided similar functionality.

SiteManager includes a tool called Link Doctor that lists the broken links. To repair bad links, you must launch an external editor from Link Doctor. Unfortunately, SiteManager completely lacks any form of quality checking beyond link analysis. The program was unable to identify orphan files, old pages and common page problems such as slow downloading. However, a download report is one of the few reports included with the tool and by using it a site administrator could attempt to isolate slow pages. But beyond that facility, the product's reports are minimal and only provide basic statistics.

The most interesting aspect of SiteManager is its mapping feature, which creates site maps that resemble interconnected dandelions. While this shows an interesting visualization of site content density, the picture doesn't make it any easier to manage the content.

SiteManager does include some advanced features. For example, if you save site maps, you can run comparisons of maps over time and see which files have changed. Also, if you specify server access files, SiteManager can show browsing patterns on the site map, which visually demonstrates a site's basic traffic patterns.

Installation of SiteManager takes only a few minutes, and there is little to configure beyond installation directory.

If you can't afford to spend any money on managing your Web content, SiteManager provides adequate link checking and a scheduling feature to automate the chore. Its advanced features, such as visualization, traffic pattern visualization and change comparisons, are also potentially useful, but overall SiteManager is not as capable as Linkbot Pro or WebMaster.

Conclusions

When it comes right down to it, none of the products meet all of the challenges of Web site management. Most of the tools failed to identify every possible form of broken link. Most did not even address all URL types well.

Despite the rising popularity of dynamic sites, only WebMaster really dealt with dynamic pages in a reasonable fashion. We found quality-assurance metrics lacking in most of the tools. And some tools focused almost entirely on broken links, which is not enough for today's Web sites.

Mapping was part of nearly all the tools, but the products still lacked the ability to create custom site visualizations, though Astra SiteManager shows an interesting possibility of what could be provided. Even when problems were identified in a site, fixing them was better suited to an external HTML editor, except in the case of WebMaster.

Our recommendations: Brooklyn North's Blueprint is better left alone until a new version is released that addresses its problems. Mercury Interactive's Astra SiteManager is suitable only for those who want an interesting visualization tool or have no budget.

WatchFire's Linkbot Pro is a good choice for quality checking, but for overall site management, Coast Software's WebMaster is the closest thing we've found to Web content and link management nirvana.

Scorecard

  Link check-
ing 25%
Map-
ping 20%
File mgt 20% Qual. as-
sur-
ance 15%
Re-
port-
ing 15%
In-
stall 5%
T
O
T
A
L
Coast Web-
Master
8 9 10 8 9 10 8.85
Link-
Bot Pro
9 7 8 10 9 9 8.55
Blue-
print
6 7 7 4 7 10 6.45
Astra Site-
Manager
7 9 3 4 5 10 6.00

Note: Individual category scores are based on a scale of 1-10. Percentages are the weight given each category in determining the total score. The World Class Award goes to products that earn 9.0 or above on our scorecard.

NetResults

WebMaster 4.1
Coast Software Inc.
(613) 567-3201
Web site
Price: $495
Pros: Seamless file management and link repair; Custom page checking rules; Powerful site searching and comparison
Cons: Missed some link types; Lacked quality metrics

Linkbot Pro 4.1
Watchfire
(613) 599-3888
Web site
Price: $295
Pros: Extensive link checking; Provides quality metrics; Excellent HTML quality checking
Cons: File management is limited; Lacks good support for dynamic data; No site comparison

Blueprint 1.2.1
Brooklyn North Software Works, Inc.
(902) 425-0900
Web site
Price: $300
Pros: Easy to use; Site mirroring
Cons: Few quality metrics; Failed to identify many forms of broken links

Astra SiteManager 2.0
Mercury Interactive
(408) 822-5200
Web site
Price: Free
Pros: Can't beat the price; Provides interesting visualization feature
Cons: Lacks quality metrics; Difficult to use with local sites

RELATED LINKS

Powell is the founder and president of PINT, a San Diego Web development firm. He is also the author of Web Site Engineering, HTML: The Complete Reference, and the upcoming Web Design: The Complete Reference. He can be reached at tpowell@ pint.com.

Scorecard and NetResults
How we ranked the apps in various categories, pricing and vendor contact info.

Forum
Discuss Web management issues with Powell, who starts off the discussion with three tips on keeping your site running at peak performance.

Interactive buyer's guide
Our database has detailed product specs for 31 apps. Use our search form to find the one that best meets your specific criteria, or compare two or more of the apps in a variety of categories.

Issues and trends
Web site management isn't just monitoring Web speeds and feeds anymore. As Web sites have grown in size and scope, managing them has evolved into a complex job that entails not only controlling traffic, but also watching access to the site, speeding the delivery of content, tracking the steps that comprise commercial transactions and managing the data behind the site.

User study: Web monitoring tools help IT rest easier
The network staff at Post Communications is getting more sleep now that they don't need to get up in the middle of the night to restart the company's Web servers. A look at how the tools they use.


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