AQUA's Website gets a makeover

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Laptop IntroThat headline might seem like shameless self-promotion if it were not so undeniably true.

If you have not been to the AQUA Web site lately, you have not seen one of the industry's top Internet creations, recently launched with impressive new functionality and design.

Go ahead, pull it up on your computer and have a look right now. It's graceful. It's useful. And perhaps more important than anything else, it's easy to navigate.

That's no accident. It's the result of a new initiative by the magazine to emphasize its online presence. The programming that puts these pages together is no longer outsourced, but now written in-house by a growing, full-time Internet team.

Efficiency, Please

The redesign began more than a year ago with the simple recognition that the old site was out of date. The magazine had a vision of a site with more, better-presented information, and above all, information that was easy to find.

It was going to require a change in the way the entire site was managed, according to Jill Nebeker, Web site editor.

"On our end, trying to update the information was very difficult on the old site," she says. "You could have access to very small portions of the site, but not all of it."

Because the old site and its content management system had been outsourced to another company, access to it was restricted, she adds. "Now that we have a full Web team, we bring everything in house; a programmer builds it, and we have full access to it."

Additionally, the old site was built of static pages, whereas the new site is dynamic. That is, instead of each page on the site being written out individually, stored and then accessed whenever needed, when a visitor opens a file at the AQUA site, that page actually builds itself on the fly from different databases.

When a user requests any page on the site, the page builder goes to the enormous AQUA database and says, "pull in that code from over there so we have a navigation bar, and pull in the code from over there so we have the right article to read, pull in the title, the author's name and get that banner ad from those people that make spa pumps."

All this happens in a split second, and suddenly you are looking at a freshly built Web page at www.aquamagazine.com.

"The reason that's a really efficient way of managing a site like ours," says Nebeker, "is that, say we want to change something on the navigation bar, you do it in just one place, one time, and it changes all the pages that will be pulling in that file from that point on. That's important because it makes record changes and updates instantaneously.

"We have almost 2,000 articles on the site, so if we decide to change something on our page format, in our old system, we'd have to change them all individually. So it's much more efficient to manage."

A Pretty Face

It's not just efficient. It's got a pretty face, too.

"The old site was outdated in its look and feel," says Nebeker, "and we wanted an amazingly beautiful site. That's exactly what we got."

Like any thing of beauty, the means by which it was achieved is a little bit mystical. Nebeker began by bringing her general notions about what she wanted on a home page to a gifted Web designer.

"I didn't want a bunch of stuff on the home page," she says. "I didn't want it to be this busy site like Yahoo! where it's like, 'Oh my gosh, there's news, and I can check my e-mail, and see what the weather's like, and I can look up stocks, and I can check out sports. . .'

"I wanted to replicate the calming effect of water.

"So I went to the designer and I took our logo and some of our magazines and our media kit, and I gave her some general ideas, and she and I have worked together on enough projects that she got it on the first try."

Finding And Doing

The lovely face, the content management system - all that means nothing to Web consumers unless they can find what they're looking for, and accomplish a few things at a site. With an updated, much more intelligent and robust search engine at the AQUA site, the quality of results returned on a search has been dramatically improved.

"The site used to have this convoluted way of showing you your results for a search," Nebeker says. "Now, when you type in, say, 'heaters,' you get the categories nicely broken down into types of heaters, from above-ground pool heaters to wood burners.

"And if you click on any one of these, say 'sauna heaters,' and all the companies in the Buyers' Guide that make them are neatly displayed. And here's some great functionality - you can contact each of them right from the AQUA Web site, send them an email, saying, 'Send me a price quote!'"

Another example of the added usefulness of the site is the ability for readers to find supplemental information. An AQUA magazine reader can now find more complete information on whatever topic is being presented by using www.aquamagazine.com.

Say an article refers to the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool And Spa Safety Act. There's no time or space in the print article to explain the importance or ramifications of that legislation; the writer just assumes readers know something about it. But there are some who don't, and those can quickly get background information by entering "Virginia Graeme Baker" in the article search engine.

While the Web site is receiving new funding and emphasis, the two elements of AQUA - print and online - will go hand in hand to provide AQUA readers a comprehensive source of industry information.

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