Why big sites are less than brilliant

The people who run large web presences know their sites could be a whole lot better. So what’s stopping them doing something about it? asks David Bowen.

I have been chatting recently to people who run corporate websites. With remarkable regularity each raised the same issue – how they can get their colleagues to take the web seriously. This is more than a matter of pride: it explains why so many large web presences are so much less good than they should be.
One manager said that though his website is easily the most visible publication the organisation has, it is regularly pushed down the priority list by his colleagues. It should be enough to show the massive number of visitors that come to big corporate websites – perhaps a half a million a month. Or maybe to point out that 70 per cent of Americans, 73 per cent of Dutch and 76 per cent of Swedes use the internet – that it is, in other words, close to becoming as commonplace as the phone (not true in most of the developing world, but here growth rates are spectacular).
Add the fact that the website is the first introduction to your company for people looking for a job, and may well be for customers, potential investors and the like, and the case should be irrefutable.
But it is not – at least with a significant number of senior people in large companies. For them the web is a secondary medium and one that does not require the same attention as the media with which they are familiar.
One manager was told by his bosses that his aim to have zero errors on his sites was hopelessly optimistic. If anyone were to suggest to them that the odd spelling mistake in a print ad – or a few mistakes in the annual report or glitches in a television commercial – were acceptable, they would have a fit.

If only they knew what they don’t know

Why is this? and does it matter? The answer to ‘why’ is reasonably simple. The web is a relatively new medium and only a few years ago it really did not matter much. At the height of the dotcom boom, the percentages quoted above would have been in the 20s or 30s – so it really is not surprising that managers who have not been following its development closely have failed to notice that usage has been growing rapidly and steadily. They probably use the web now – but to buy books, book flights and the like. Chances are few of them look much at their own company’s website (the intranet is another matter).
Why does it matter? Well, it is useful to think of a website (or rather a web presence, probably with dozens or hundreds of sites) as a publication. It needs to be managed like a magazine, with an engaging front cover that changes regularly, attractive images and content designed to make people want to read to the end.
But there is one important difference: size. A magazine has a couple of hundred pages at the most. A website will have thousands, quite probably tens of thousands. Where it is reasonable for a small team of editors to edit, rewrite and repeatedly proofread every word of a magazine, it is quite impractical with a website. That is why the site’s ‘editor’ must rely on people around the world to ensure they get the quality right themselves. And they will not do that if they do not take the web seriously.

The recognition factor

Let’s take a typical big corporation. A small team will sit at the centre directly controlling core parts of the website. It will work with in-house IT people and, perhaps, an external agency. But it will also coordinate with hundreds of people around the world whose job is to populate country and business unit sites, most likely using a content management system (which allows non-technical staff to update pages).
The central team will provide ‘web standards’ – guidelines for contributors that aim to make sure they follow approved style, in language and other aspects. It is possible to use clever software to monitor some elements – flagging up paragraphs that are too long, for example – but for actual quality of content, the central staff are reliant on their colleagues. They can train, they can provide a help desk and other back-up, but ultimately they are dependent on their colleagues taking the time and trouble to keep their part of the web presence spick and span.
Whether this happens depends on who is responsible at the country or business unit level. The actual inputting can be done by an office junior; if his or her boss is determined to keep up standards, the result will be fine. If, however, the boss regards it as a chore that has to be fitted in among more urgent affairs, the result will inevitably be decline. No matter how much training has been provided. No matter how much support has come from the centre.
And this, of course, comes back to how much importance the local bosses attach to the web. If they think it is important, they will make sure it receives the time and resources it needs. If they do not, it won’t.
In other words, the real training companies need to give is not so much the nitty-gritty how-to-do-it kind, more internal communication, propaganda, call it what you will, to ensure that everyone really does appreciate the web is a front-line medium. It’s tricky – not least because in some countries it isn’t (yet) – but it must be possible. The secret, to borrow a phrase from Mr Tony Blair, must be education, education, education.

First published 30 May, 2007
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