In this, Oil Internet’s first blog, we discuss Michael Palin, William Morris and, erm, being the oil that ran a content management engine. We also consider the enormous benefits of thorough planning and the changing guises of technology at the turn of the millennium.
It’s no secret that technology is a fast-moving beast. The cliche of “here today, gone today” seems rather apt.
So it’s to be expected that, since we started Oil Internet in 2002, we’ve witnessed some major technological shifts.
In those days, the overriding sentiment was that everyone – whatever the sector, whatever the goal – needed a website. Since then, everyone has developed their first website. And, more than likely, a second and third website. They’ve started a blog, commissioned an app and created a Facebook page to “tap into the power of social media”.
In many cases, those websites, blogs, apps and Facebook pages have been successful, well-judged, strategic decisions.
But for some, there is a lingering sentiment that new technologies are necessary evils. Murky virtual environments in which shiny-suited (or perhaps jeans-and-tshirted) salespeople flog solutions that are rarely needed, barely comprehended and always overpriced.
There is no question that this can be the case. We’ve had countless conversations with prospective clients whose pervasive sense of paranoia resulted from being burnt by website design companies whose sole ambition was to sell as much functionality as possible, whether relevant or otherwise.
Our core belief is that, but for his choice of tools, William Morris would have been a superb web designer. His assertion that “nothing useless can be truly beautiful” is as relevant today as it was during the English Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century. We always aim to design beautiful web projects – and we like to believe that we succeed more often than not – but the inherent beauty comes from a combination of style and substance. It’s not just a question of pretty pixels, but of presenting the user with what they need, attractively, intuitively and swiftly.
The first paid Oil Internet project was Michael Palin’s official travel website, Palin’s Travels. We’d met Michael at a Christmas party at the Stammering Centre, a charity for whom we’d built a website free of charge. He chatted about the difficulty he was having convincing the BBC to launch a website that offered all of his travel writing for free. With a whopping portfolio of one site under our belt, we put ourselves forward. Within weeks, we were sat in Michael’s offices discussing written content, videos and audio clips.
Whilst those early days were extremely exciting, they were also daunting. We had some experience from our prior work at a travel dot com, and had some web design, build and editorial skills to offer, but were essentially learning the ropes as we went. Not only were our portfolios and skill-sets limited, the technology of the day was also an embarrassment when compared to today’s riches. Internet speeds and processors were cripplingly slow, database choices relatively few and even digital cameras pathetically low on pixel counts. Indeed, as it was 2002, the hundreds of photos from Michael’s first series were, of course, taken by traditional, film-based cameras – so there were many a joyous hour spent scanning photos! And, most problematically of all when trying to build a site to house five complete travel series-worth of textual content, videos, photos, interactive maps and Michael’s multimedia souvenirs, there weren’t too many off-the-shelf content management systems (CMSs) kicking about.
So we built our own.
We went to the Tate Modern, unfurled an enormous piece of blank paper, and sketched every possible pathway, category, database and content type we could think of. And then we sat down in Hyde Park with our phenomenal programmers, Erik Lindegren and Tomas Larsson, and tried to visualise a CMS that could handle all of that information. Except it was such early days that the term “CMS” was yet to become accepted terminology – so we called ours a CME (content management engine). And we were the OIL that made the engine run, believe it or not. We still blush when we recall that particularly inelegant metaphor.
Equally, we still can’t believe what an astonishing job Erik and Tomas did with that initial version of the CMS (or, ahem, CME!). Twelve years later, we continue to use many of the original lines of code for our current bespoke content management system. In the days when Ask Jeeves was the leading search engine (honestly!), when people were as familiar with the process of cherymoya hand pollination as they were with search engine optimisation (SEO), and when optimising a website just meant putting the same keyword into the header thousands of times, preferably in white text on a white background, Erik and Tomas even had the foresight to include meta data fields within the CMS. They built a chat room where Michael could conduct live question and answer sessions literally years before the trend for such things caught on. And, as a direct result, Palin’s Travels continues to educate, interest and inspire its many thousands of users, while Michael himself has broadened his online library even further by now offering all of the content from nine complete travel series completely free of charge.
The fact that we continue to work with an ever-expanding group of diverse and motivational clients probably comes down to a handful of key variables.
Firstly, we were unquestionably and unforgettably fortunate to be trusted by Michael Palin when we first met over a glass of wine at a charity get-together. Not many national treasures would have taken such a risk, and he has our eternal gratitude.
Secondly, we were extremely lucky to know Erik and Tomas (and subsequently the equally fantastic Björn Nilsved), and to be able to look on as they realised our half-baked, offline dreams with a powerful, stable and flexible content management system.
And, perhaps rather less glamorously, we stumbled across a strategy we continue to use today when we sat down in the Tate Modern with our humungous piece of paper. Unwittingly and subconsciously, we must have realised that few web projects will be built successfully without deep foundations of intricate planning. The quality of content is essential. The beauty and intuitiveness of the design will attract users. The application of SEO campaigns will broaden the potential audience. But without thorough, fastidious, eagle-eyed planning, a web project quickly buckles under its own weight. Requirements will always change and specifications will always grow – and that type of organic growth depends almost entirely upon the strength and accuracy of initial planning.
So, as a result of methodical planning, hard work, increasing experience and skills and sheer good fortune, we launched Palin’s Travels on 25 September 2002 (the fourteenth anniversary of Michael’s groundbreaking Around the World in 80 Days).
We would say we’ve never looked back, but that would be flagrantly untrue as this first blog is a nostalgic review of Oil Internet’s early days. Perhaps we should instead say we’re looking forward to looking back in another 12 years.
And, more immediately, we’ll look forward to blogging about the core services we’ve honed over the past 12 years.