Design Flexibility Is Key

When Insurance Agency LLC went looking for a content management application, the company decided the ideal candidate would be standards-based, to integrate with data from a wide variety of partners, and would be based on popular development

When Insurance Agency LLC went looking for a content management application, the company decided the ideal candidate would be standards-based, to integrate with data from a wide variety of partners, and would be based on popular development tools, so the company wouldnt get locked into proprietary or complex code., of Newton, Mass., provides a comprehensive online clearinghouse of information and products for personal insurance. It helps visitors learn the basics of various types of insurance, find books and, most important, get quotes on everything from car to pet insurance from a wide number of insurers in all 50 states.

Most of the content on the site comes from third-party vendors such as insurance companies and bookstores. In addition, as an affiliate of Fidelity Investments, provides content directly to other Fidelity Web sites.

The company already had a Web site that was created as a variation of the main site and was built using Microsoft Corp.s Active Server Pages.

According to Henrik Sandell, Insurance.coms CTO, when it came time to evaluate content management systems, the company looked at products from Vignette Corp., Interwoven Inc., Open Market Inc., eBT International Inc. (which went out of business earlier this year) and Eprise Corp.

Insurance.coms staff chose Eprises Participant Server, although it was somewhat lower-end in price and capabilities than the other products, because they felt the other applications would lock them into a proprietary environment and limit their flexibility.

One of Insurance.coms key requirements when evaluating content management systems was "everything had to be based on our decisions, not the tools requirements," Sandell said. implemented Participant Server in September 2000. Most conversion of the original site to the content management system was done by Web design company MarchFirst Inc.

"Our goal was to leverage existing technology to give us flexibility to make on-the-fly changes that our competitors dont have," Sandell said. "We wanted to have more design flexibility, and Eprise allowed us to make wholesale site changes easily."

When first moved to Participant Server, Sandell said, the company had a lot of problems with the underlying data model that it used. "Our site structure simply overstressed the system," he said. He said that the site has worked much better since Participant Server 3.0 was installed. uses Participant Server only in its authoring mode, not in live mode. This means that all content management is done on a staging server, not on the live site. "This reduces the worries about security or the performance impact of the CM," Sandell said.

For pushing content from the staging server to the live site, uses a system that was developed in-house. "We looked at the Eprise content delivery system, but it was higher-end than our needs required," Sandell said. also works with consulting company Coriva Inc. for maintenance of the site. Coriva is a partner of Eprise, and Coriva employees have full training on the system.

When decided to bring in Tina Dubuque to be its in-house Webmaster, she essentially learned how to run Participant Server from the technicians at Coriva. "Since were using such a narrow focus of the product, its easy for Tina to learn from others who have been through the training," Sandell said.

"It was pretty easy and straightforward to learn the system," Dubuque added.

Dubuque, an experienced HTML coder, said she still uses Macromedia Inc.s HomeSite to create HTML before pasting it into the content windows in Eprise. Dubuque also uses HomeSite when she needs to create new templates for the site. "I do the work in HomeSite, and then I cut it up and drop it into the Eprise system," she said. is currently using Version 3.5 of Participant Server, which it has found to be a big improvement over previous versions, especially in versioning. "Its been handy for when weve needed to roll back content," Dubuque said.

Before anything reaches the live site, it goes through three stages of review. "We want to make sure all of the components are stable. Since we stage the site and do testing on the staging server, issues are found before they can go live," Dubuque said.

Most of the data interface between and third-party providers is done through Extensible Markup Language. In addition, when it comes to heavy data-crunching tasks, such as insurance quotes, much of that work is done at partner sites and then transmitted to the site.

Only two people are adding content to the site on a regular basis, so does not use the workflow features in Participant Server. Sandell said they make major changes to the site about once every six months.

Another benefit of Eprise, said Sandell, is that it lets publish bifurcated versions of the site for use in other Fidelity pages. For example, provides insurance-related content to the main Fidelity site. With Participant Server, can do this using the same content even though the Fidelity site has a different look and feel.

"From a CM standpoint, it works very well, essentially saving us from having to edit 16 pages by hand," Dubuque said. doesnt use the personalization features, even though its site has extensive personalization capabilities. Sandell said the company doesnt use the personalization and registration features in Eprise because it implemented those features in the initial rollout of the site.