Case Study: Discovering Plone Content Management System (Part 2)

10 minute read
Scott Paley avatar
Plone Content Management
DISCOVER Magazine, one of the most widely read science mags in the US, had out grown its dated web publishing infrastructure. Times were changing, multi-media was big and in general Web and CMS technology had moved forward significantly.DISCOVER chose the Plone Web content management system as the platform for managing and delivering their primary website (http://www.discovermagazine.com). The decision was made on the basis of the system's ease-of-use, feature set, strong open source community, outstanding customizability, standards compliance, reputation and delivery performance.In part one of this two-part series we described both how DISCOVER uses the Plone Web CMS to manage its website, and how the DISCOVER team worked through the process of migrating existing content from its older site into the Plone system.Here in part two, we will review some of the specific features of Plone and how DISCOVER has taken advantage of them, and then we'll discuss a bit about the website's post-launch performance.

Case Study Highlights

* DISCOVER chose Plone for its ease-of-use, robust feature set, strong open source community, reduced vendor lock-in, outstanding customizability, standards compliance, reputation, economics, and high performance.* Features such as a powerful, integrated search engine, flexible workflow system, and automatic image resizing were key factors in DISCOVER’s choice of Plone.* Streaming video, blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds and photo galleries are enabled and integrated.* Integration of social networking sites like Digg and Reddit has resulted in an increase in site traffic of nearly 70%.* Any site content can be made "Subscriber-only" by DISCOVER editors.* DISCOVERmagazine.com is a high-traffic site that performs extremely well under heavy load.

Additional Plone Features

One of the reasons DISCOVER chose Plone was the enormous amount of functionality Plone provides out-of-the-box, and the wide assortment of outstanding add-on products such as blogging and polls.

Built-in Search Engine

A relevance-based search engine is built right into Plone. As soon as content is submitted to Plone it is indexed and available in the search engine to anybody with permission to see that content. The search engine makes it extremely easy for visitors to find the specific content they want, including print or web articles, podcasts, videos, photo galleries and blog entries. Live Search enables the visitor to see search results in real time as keywords are entered into the search field. Advanced Search lets the visitor target search results by author, date, content type (blog post, article, photo gallery, etc.), channel and/or sub-channel.

Customizable Workflow

All content in Plone has a visibility state (private, published, draft, etc.) that defines who can see that content. Plone makes it extremely easy to customize the workflow that related to the state of the content. For example, when an article is entered in the DISCOVER website it starts in a private state. Authorized editors are allowed to change the state of the article to published or to subscriber-only.

Subscriber/Premier Content

Only subscribers to the print magazine are allowed to see content that is in the subscriber-only state. An integration was developed between Plone and DISCOVER's 3rd party subscription management service to enable Plone to know, in real time, if somebody is a valid and active magazine subscriber. Non-subscribers are only able to see a teaser for subscriber-only content, enticing them to become magazine subscribers in order to read the full article.Throughout the site, website visitors are given the opportunity to subscribe. New subscribers are provided instant access to the subscriber-only content, to the print magazine or to any of several email newsletters.

RSS Web Feeds

RSS feeds are available throughout the DISCOVER website, enabling visitors to be instantly notified of changes and newly published content. In addition to a general RSS feed, each channel, department and blog has its own feed. In its out-of-the-box form Plone automatically generates RSS feeds. This is a key functionality for any modern Web CMS.

Social Networking Features

Social networking integration with Digg, Reddit and Del.icio.us allows site visitors to easily share their favorite articles with the world, helping to drive significant site traffic (and therefore ad revenue). In fact, these social networking sites are responsible for driving approximately 40% of DISCOVERmagazine.com's total traffic.


DISCOVERmagazine.com also houses several blogs inside of Plone -- using the outstanding Quills add-on to Plone. The integrated blogs are accessible from the homepage, where as you'd expect, the latest blog entries are aggregated in near real time. Each blog has an individual RSS feed and other standard blogging features such as permalinks, tags, comments, a blogroll, archives and trackbacks.


Visitors can forward any article to a friend by simply clicking on a small "email" icon. This ubiquitous feature is baked right into Plone and provides a simple way to encourage viral marketing.

Printer-Friendly Views

Plone's flexible and standard-compliant templating system makes it a snap to print.It automatically creates a standard print template that strips content graphics and other non-text assets.

Site Map

Plone automatically creates a site map of page links that helps Google and other search engines index the website.

Navigational Breadcrumbs

DISCOVER uses Plone's built-in "breadcrumb" functionality to help site visitors understand where they are on the site and navigate their way back.

Plone Breadcrumb Trails

Built-in Navigational Breadcrumbs

Learning Opportunities

Automatic Image Resizing

On DISCOVER's website, images associated with articles get used in several different contexts (thumbnails, enlargements, etc.). Plone's built-in image resizing functionality is used to automatically generate all the different image sizes that are needed for a single image. Web editors do not have to enter an image in multiple sizes.

Integrated Polls

DISCOVER's content editors can place simple polls on the site that are specific to the content on the page. For example, the "Technology" channel could have a poll about content management systems while the "Environment" channel could have a poll about global warming. Real-time poll results are instantly displayed to participants. Poll functionality is a widely supported add-on for Plone.

Photo Galleries

Photo galleries are a key new feature of the website and DISCOVER's editors can easily add new galleries to illustrate science imagery. The photo gallery add-on to Plone provides for a rich "AJAX" interface for end users and can be configured to display standard slide shows. Photos added into Plone can be found by visitors using the integrated search engine and in "related articles" lists. Plone's "advanced search" allows visitors to filter their searches to only return photos.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics integration with Plone is extremely easy to set up and allows DISCOVER management to track and analyze, in real time, the website's performance. DISCOVER can watch site traffic, determine which articles are being read the most, see the results of any marketing campaigns, and get visitor demographic data.

Standards Compliance

Out-of-the-box, Plone uses 100% standard XHTML and CSS. This means that Plone-based sites are extremely Google friendly (DiscoverMagazine.com's Google ranking is currently 8/10), and Plone sites are relatively easy to make work across different browsers and platforms. The amount of time spent to make sure DISCOVER's website looked correct across different web browser types was relatively small.Unlike many other CMS platforms, Plone uses search-friendly and keyword-rich URLs such as'http://discovermagazine.com/2007/may/how-bad-is-fat'. This is much better than something like 'http://www.slate.com/id/2166199?nav=tap3', which tells Google absolutely nothing about what the content might contain. This is critically important for good search engine optimization.

Website Performance

DISCOVERmagazine.com gets a good deal of traffic. On a typical day the site can get between 50,000 and 100,000 page views, and site traffic increased to nearly 800,000 unique visitors the first full month after the launch. At no time has the site approached its performance capacity, and many people have specifically commented on how zippy the site is. In April 2007 an article on the site was "Slashdotted" – a term that refers to a huge influx of web traffic from one or more extremely popular sites (in this case, Slashdot.org itself), causing more than a doubling of the typical site traffic (the site served nearly 150,000 pages in one day.) The site worked beautifully with no discernible loss of performance.The site runs on two load-balanced standard Linux-based web servers, each of which connects to a third server that houses Plone's object database. Out-of-the-box, Plone is configured for development, not deployment, so some configuration was necessary to get Plone to perform so well. However, in this case it only took a couple of days of work, and involved the deployment of a straightforward, intelligent caching policy. As DISCOVER's traffic grows, it would be very simple to add additional servers behind the load balancer to increase capacity nearly linearly (add twice the servers to get twice the capacity). In fact, pretty much no additional configuration would be necessary to do so, as Plone has distributed deployment capability built right in.

Why DISCOVER Loves Plone

Plone has greatly increased the efficiency and enhanced the capabilities of DISCOVER Magazine’s online publishing operations. When asked why they are happy with the Plone CMS, DISCOVER management provided the following reasons:# It's really easy to learn and use as a writer, editor or publisher# It has a ton of functionality right out-of-the-box# It's built on open source standards that are widely used and deployed, such as Python and Zope, so there are plenty of vendors they can work with# Its prospects for future improvements are outstanding, and it has a very low likelihood of obsolescence# Plone is well-respected in both the technology and publishing communities# It's highly expandable in any way DISCOVER needs.

For example, a site visitor posted the printer-friendly version of a DISCOVER article to Digg, a popular social networking website. This link generated a very large volume of traffic, but the printer-friendly page, by design, does not show any advertisements.

In less than one hour, Plone was reconfigured so that if somebody tried to go directly to the printer-friendly version, that person would automatically be redirected to the original article where the revenue generating advertisements are displayed. With a proprietary CMS, this could have been very difficult to do, if not impossible, unless the CMS already had this feature.# Since Plone is open source, DISCOVER could spend its project budget on designing, marketing and customizing the system for the specific needs of the magazine, instead of spending it on expensive software licensesDISCOVER Magazine's experience clearly shows a case where Plone was ideally suited as a Web publish content management system.

About the Author

Scott Paley is the CTO at Abstract Edge, a boutique creative agency focused on digital marketing strategy, execution and education for media, hospitality and lifestyle brands. Headquartered in New York, Abstract Edge has designed websites on Plone for dozens of companies including Discover Magazine, Atkins Nutritionals, Vera Wang, Octagon, US Youth Soccer and The American Legacy Foundation. Abstract Edge believes that Plone is an ideal Web Content Management System to use for magazine and newspaper websites.

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