December 7, 1998
Q: Which skills are more important in defining a Webmaster role for our company: technical skills, or content management expertise?
A: The role of Webmaster has evolved since the earliest intranet sites. In the beginning, the Webmaster was responsible for a specific Web server, and the workstation or PC on which it ran. The Webmaster installed the software and set up the Web site, often on his or her own computer. If someone else wanted to publish content on the site, he would contact the Webmaster and reach an agreement to have the Webmaster put it on the Web server.
Webmasters historically were "techies" who bridged the gap between Web technology and those who lacked technical know-how but had content to share. The ubiquitous Webmaster e-mail link--providing a way to contact the person responsible for the server--harks back to those days.
As more people began publishing content, a lot of Webmasters--many of whom were doing the job on their own time--became overloaded. Webmasters who were systems administrators for shared machines began to give other users access to directories on the server so they could manage content on their own.
This development gave rise to several important trends: The time demands became visible to the company, and Webmaster functions and titles started to appear as formal entities. Additionally, it became increasingly important to empower content publishers to create and manage their own HTML. Finally, content sites began to be separate from the physical Web server, thus dividing content management from managing the computer and its software applications.
The role of Webmaster gained complexity, and four functional areas emerged: systems administration, e-mail clearinghouse, publisher training, and content management. Perceptive companies have filled each role with different people, often giving the e-mail clearinghouse and publisher training functions to a single person. For most companies, the content management function has moved out into the business areas so that every business area manages its own content--they don't shift the burden to IT "specialists" any longer.
Confusion as to what skills define the Webmaster role arises because the term Webmaster is still used in reference to all four of these roles.
The increasing load of e-mail--and the universal brand recognition of "firstname.lastname@example.org" as a generic clearinghouse for contacting anyone at the company about any topic--makes it unlikely this use of the word Webmaster will disappear anytime soon. Content management is the only job duty that has escaped the Webmaster moniker.
The Webmaster term has of late been replaced with terms like content owner, publisher, and editor. However, attempts to provide a companywide top-level page as a starting point for accessing distributed content has shifted the Webmaster title back to the content managers. The person in charge of the intranet home page is also managing the e-mail sent to the "Webmaster." Perhaps the best advice is to recognize the need for each of these separate functions, regardless of what they are called in your organization. Define the skills you require for each role, and don't feel compelled to hire just one person to meet all of your intranet needs.
See "Intranet Webmasters Must Do It All," in the Internet Careers section for more on this topic.