Free Web Site Advice

Advice and Commentary on Web Site Issues

What Happened to the Webmaster? (And other misleading titles)

Someone asked me the other day if I was a “Webmaster.” Ah, the flood of memories that invoked.

Way back when I started working on the “Information Superhighway” (circa 1994, or as archaeologists might one day refer to it, “the Netscape Era”), the term Webmaster was in common use. At first it referred to that frustrated techie who set up the rogue Web server without company authorization, coded HTML by hand in a text editor, FTP’d the files to the server, and in his spare time answered all the incoming corporate e-mails, usually also without company authorization. (Needless to say, this early Webmaster received little thanks from his bosses once they found out what the whirring in the closet was all about.)

I was in public relations at the time, and as a dealer in words and meanings, I disliked the term “Webmaster” from the beginning — I didn’t like the D&D analogy, or the implication of rigid control. I envisioned a future Web that would be more collaborative. “I’m not the master of our Web,” I would tell people. “I’m more like a Web Coordinator, really.” And so I became Web Coordinator, even though sometimes my official job title was something else.

Meantime, as the Web matured and more people got involved with different skill sets, Webmaster as a title faded, in favor of more descriptive labels like Web Server Administrator, Web Programmer, Web Designer, Web Producer, Web Content Editor, Usability Specialist, Network Engineer, Search Engine Optimizer and so on. This reflects that multiple skills are required in keeping Web sites — especially bigger ones — running. And so, in a way, everyone’s a Webmaster — or at least, doing part of the job.

These days, there can be a million titles with very different meanings, and likewise a lot of information gaps. Some designers create fancy Web designs, but without a basic understanding of HTML, the designs may be impossible to implement (or eat up too much bandwidth, or cause search engine optimization problems). Some SEO specialists optimize pages for the crawlers, neglecting the real people that need to use the site. Web programmers create complex applications that work great in the latest beta of IE on Windows, and expect users to upgrade. Don’t get me wrong; there are good people in all these job titles — and if you’re one of them, I salute you.

But beware — there are also a lot of people wearing misleading titles. I hear from people who hired a designer thinking they’d end up with a finished Web site, and all they got was a design (now they have to go find somebody to implement that design); or who hired a programmer and got good underlying code wrapped in a really ugly, unusable package.

Make sure you know what skills you’re getting, and make sure you’ve got expertise in all the necessary steps for your project.

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