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Macromedia Contribute 2 is a simplified Web page authoring program that enables clients and corporate end users to create and publish Web pages without knowing HTML. This companion to Macromedia’s flagship Web development program, Dreamweaver, is inexpensive and easy to use. Macromedia claims that anyone who can use a Web browser and a word processor can use Contribute. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s not too far from the truth.

The idea of turning a bunch of corporate users loose with a program that enables them to make changes to the company’s intranet site causes most Web builders to shudder. And the thought of extending that idea to a client or corporate Web site is enough to cause a full-fledged panic attack.

However, it may be time to reconsider the idea of allowing clients and corporate end users to contribute and maintain Web site content with Contribute. If the site design allows for the program’s strengths and limitations, the result can be a successful collaboration between the client and the Web builder. That collaboration allows the Web builder to concentrate on the site’s architecture and visual design rather than dealing with the minutia of entering text and making endless client revisions. The client can use Contribute to enter and update text—and even create new pages—without waiting for busy Web builders to get around to making those routine content updates.

Contribute is capable of editing most static Web pages on almost any Web site that is accessible by local network or FTP. But giving users free reign to edit any page they see on a typical Web site is asking for trouble. The secret to making Contribute work as a collaborative tool without destroying your site design is to take advantage of its user administration features to control what the user can and cannot do. That often means adjusting certain aspects of the site design to accommodate users’ page editing instead of assuming that Web professionals will perform all page creation and maintenance.

Control access with subdirectories
The Contribute site administrator can set up user groups that have permission to access Web pages in certain directories but not in others. This allows you to control what part of the site certain users can edit.

To use this feature effectively, you need to build your site’s directory structure so that it organizes pages according to the groups that need to edit them. For example, instead of putting all the product pages into one directory, you might want to create one directory for product overviews (which users from the marketing department would maintain), and another directory for technical information (which users from the engineering department would maintain).

Avoid putting pages that users need to edit in the site’s root directory. Granting a user permission to edit pages in a given directory also includes permission to edit pages in all subdirectories. So granting permission to edit the site root effectively grants edit permission to the entire site.

Limit formatting options
Another part of the Contribute user-group configuration controls what formatting options the program shows users in a given group. The site administrator can select whether to allow users to apply fonts and sizes directly, and whether to show HTML headings, CSS styles, or both in Contribute’s Style menu. If you really want to lock down your site design, you can disable users’ access to fonts and sizes, and limit the formatting options to the CSS styles.

If you take this route (and I recommend that you do), you’ll need to keep users in mind as you develop your CSS style sheet for the site. The styles that appear on the Style menu are the class selectors, not the CSS styles for HTML tags, IDs, or contextual selectors. Therefore, you’ll probably want to be very explicit in naming the CSS classes so users know what styles to use to format what text. Also, since ID selectors don’t appear in the Style menu, you can use IDs rather than classes for styles that you want to hide from users.

Use templates to control layout
Contribute can use Dreamweaver templates; this gives you a very powerful tool for controlling the layout of pages that Contribute edits. Dreamweaver templates allow you to define editable areas on a page and lock the rest of the page to prevent changes. For example, you can create a page design with a central content area designated as the sole editable area, while all the background, header, footer, navigation, logos, and other site identification is protected by the template. Users can then add or edit text in the content area, but they can’t alter the rest of the page.

The Contribute site administrator can restrict users’ ability to create new pages with the program. You can disable the ability to create blank pages or pages based on sample layouts. You can even force new pages to be based on certain Dreamweaver templates, thus controlling the layout of all new pages.

The combination of using Dreamweaver templates for page-layout control and Contribute for content entry and updates creates a powerful and convenient Web page production model. In a future column, I’ll explore these templates and how they interact with Contribute.