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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Thursday, 1st July, 2010

Controlling the website animal

Has your website grown into an out of control monster? Does it consume your time and energy with its mountains of legacy content? If so its time to put it on a diet.

Digital Strategy:
The estimated time to read this article is 7 minutes

Ask any in-house team whether their website is bigger than it should be and the answer will always be yes.

The bigger the organisation, the bigger the website. However, just because the company is bigger does not mean its website should be. Most of the time the site is bigger because there are simply more people who want their say!

Unfortunately big sites, with lots of legacy content, create serious problems.

Why monster sites suck

Monsters demanding to be fed

Cristian34, Shutterstock

There are in fact a plethora of problems. However the big five are:

  • Time consuming to maintain – When your website comprises of many thousands of web pages, it takes considerable man hours to update and maintain. Rarely do web teams have sufficient resources to stay on top of the sheer number of updates required.
  • Often out of date – Because there is just so much content, it becomes next to impossible to keep everything up-to-date. If a product line is dropped or a key member of staff is replaced, you may need to review thousands of pages to find every reference and correct it. Admittedly most sites of this size are managed by a distributed team of content providers, but realistically you cannot rely on them to keep their content current.
  • Difficult to migrate – With different pages built on different systems and using different code it becomes a nightmare if you wish to update the sites look and feel. In fact the task is so overwhelming that in-house teams often only update the central site vowing to ‘get around to the rest’ as soon as they can. This creates an inconsistent user experience of undermines the professionalism of the site.
  • Hard for users to find content - If finding a needle in a haystack is hard, imagine trying to find a needle in a barn of straw. The bigger the site, the harder it is for users to find what they want. Navigation and information architecture becomes increasingly complex while search returns an overwhelming number of results. Content providers put up content because ‘somebody might want it’ but all they are doing is making it harder for users to find what they really need.
  • Creates a lack of strategic thinking – Because the web team is spending so much time just staying on top of the existing website they have no time to stop and take stock. They never have the chance to step back from the site and plan its strategic direction. In essence they cannot see the wood for the trees. They work on the micro rather than macro level.
  • Little quality control – Finally with a website too big for any web team to successfully manage the quality begins to slip. Content providers do not present content in a consistent manner, they make unwise design decisions and their copy is bland and uninspiring. Without some central group overseeing the output of content providers, the quality of the site will inevitably suffer.

If the drawbacks are so obvious, why is it that so many websites have grown out of control.

Why things don’t change

Large organisations suffer from two evils, bureaucracy and politics.

Two monsters representing politics and bureaucracy

Cristian34, Shutterstock

Bureaucracy says certain things have to be done whether or not they make sense. For example, university research groups have to have a website in order to secure funding. These sites have to exist even though many researchers don’t care about them and they receive next to no traffic.

The problem is that nobody has the time or evidence to challenge these bureaucratic rulings, or think of alternative approaches.

The bigger problem however is politics. In the grand scheme of things most web teams rate fairly low in the pecking order. When somebody comes along requesting an update to an unused webpage, they simply don’t have the authority to say no. They certainly cannot get away with arbitrarily removing unused, irrelevant or out of date content.

How then can we control the growth of monster websites?

Avoiding politics, create policy

In many cases organisations turn to companies like Headscape to solve these issues. They know that calling in an outside specialist (especially one experienced in dealing with company politics) will get stuff done. Strangely senior management will pay more attention to an outside consultant than their own in-house team.

An outside consultant can also get away with asking naive questions and suggesting unacceptable solutions because they “don’t know how things work”. It is amazing how powerful the question “why?” is in challenging long held political decisions.

That said, there are things you can do yourself without outside help.

Large organisations like rules and structure, so create some. Instead of turning every change into a political or personal battle, make it a policy instead.

People are much more likely to buy into a policy that isn’t directly targeted at them, than to a direct confrontation. Confrontation forces people to depend their position and that never leads to a good place.

What am I talking about in practice? I am suggesting you let the numbers do the talking. Here are three policies you might want to introduce at your organisation…

The link on the homepage that receives the least clicks will be automatically replaced.

If you think about it this makes a lot of sense. Everybody would agree in theory that the most important content should appear on the homepage. They also believe that their content is the most important. This is why so many homepages become a battleground.

By implementing a policy like this you are ensuring that the content most crucial to users floats to the homepage. More importantly the web team is not the group making the tough decisions and dealing with the internal politics. Instead it is a policy that everybody has agreed to.

Pages that do not meet a minimum thresholds of page views and dwell time will be unpublished until rewritten.

Depending on the threshold this could dramatically reduce the size of your website.

By combining page views and dwell time you ensure that any content remaining is both popular and useful.

Admittedly this one is going to be slightly tougher to sell which is why I have softened the consequences. I could have suggested that such pages are just deleted. However, instead I propose they should be rewritten. This gives you the opportunity to help whoever published that content to improve their copy so it meets the threshold next time.

Webpages that has not been update in the last six months will be unpublished until the content can be reviewed.

This is my favourite. In a single stroke you have dealt with out-of-date content on your website. What is more everybody will agree that content needs keeping up-to-date.

The only possible argument against such a position is that some content does not need updating every six months. That is true. However, all the content providers needs to do is review their pages in the CMS and the page will remain online. If they can’t be bothered or forget then the page is only unpublished, not deleted.

Softening the blow

Boxer

Cristian34, Shutterstock

I know what you are thinking. You are not sure if you could get this through. You are also thinking about all of the external and internal links that lead to the pages we have just unpublished.

Fortunately you can soften the blow if necessary. Instead of unpublishing the pages you can remove them from the main navigation and search results. This means that navigating and finding content becomes easier, but the page still exists for those who desperately need it.

I would however add one caveat to this suggestion. Because these pages could be out-of-date, misleading or downright bad, I think it is important to add a notice to them which reads…

This page could contain out of date information or no longer reflect our organisations current position. The page is currently under review and will either be updated or removed.

I would then set a time limit for content providers to review the page and update it accordingly. If they fail to, then the page will be unpublished.

So what do you think? Could this work? Let me know in the comments below.

Need help overcoming internal politics so you can improve your site? Give me a call (+44 7760 123 120) or drop me an email, I would be glad to help.

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