Where to get the measure of value

The search for numbers that can express the worth of a website is prone to distort rather than support efforts to improve it, David Bowen says.

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How much is your organisation’s website worth? It’s a question we have been grappling with, because business likes everything to be measured, and the favourite units of measurement are the dollar, the euro, the zloty or whatever currency you prefer. If you can say that your site is worth so much, you can provide a return on investment, just like the other parts of the business. If you cannot, you risk being marginalised – especially when times are tough. Pleas that ‘everything is going online’ and ‘it’s the low-cost channel’ can too easily be met with a curt ‘prove the value!’. And that’s before you start muttering about social media.
If you have an e-commerce site, it’s not an issue – feel the revenue. But there is no obvious way to value corporate sites or those of large non-commercial organisations.

Value for no money

Does it make sense to put a value on something that does not generate cash? Most business people would be happy to say yes. For one thing, a site can save money – for example, by replacing expensively printed and posted documents. For another, there is an established method of valuing things such as brands and goodwill, which are about as amorphous as you can get. We know a brand is worth something, even though the amount cannot be worked out by the traditional route of supply and demand. And if you can value a brand, surely you can value a website.
Maybe the celebrated nineteenth-century scientist Lord Kelvin had it right: “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.”
But how do you do it? The method we have been working on uses opportunity cost: if you had to do something in an offline world, how much would it cost?
That’s the theory, and with a lot of hard work and common sense, it can be done.

Measures reflect in performance

But there are serious issues that need to be addressed. Most particularly, will the act of measurement itself distort the way in which the site is developed?
If any of you are parents in the UK, you will know about Ofsted. It is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills and its job involves inspecting schools around the country, using a standardised methodology to produce reports on their quality, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. In general, the government is keen on Ofsted, parents are split and teachers do not like it. They say that the schools know what the inspectors are looking for, and put far too much emphasis on doing well in those areas, while ignoring others.
To put it another way, teachers believe that Ofsted is turning the management of a school from an art to a science, and that is not the way to create excellence.
There is a parallel with websites (and indeed social media) here. Like schools, large websites are complex. They have multiple roles and are trying to please multiple audiences, while at the same time giving their owners what they need. Every one is different, from each of these three angles. What is right, or ‘appropriate’, for one organisation is not necessarily right for another.

Metrics count for less

So, can a measurement mechanism – however sophisticated – avoid the Ofsted trap? If an organisation is measuring a set of indicators, are not those the ones the web manager will concentrate on, distorting the balanced development of the site?
The answer is the same one Ofsted should (maybe even does) give to schools. Don’t get hung up on the metrics being measured. Make the site as good as it can be, serving all those audiences and doing all those things in the most appropriate way possible, and you will be rewarded in the scores.
The point is that the areas that are being scored should act as proxies for quality across many areas – but are not in themselves a guide to attaining that quality. Separate your improvement process from your measuring process, and accept that some areas will defeat measurement. That doesn’t matter – it doesn’t make them any less important. As Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts”.
Should you try to put a dollar/ euro/zloty value on your site? Absolutely. Why not? If you want more resources – and I have yet to meet a web manager who does not – you must speak in the language of the money men. The fact that you then have a handy measurement tool is a nice by-product.

First published 21 September, 2010
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