10 harsh truths about corporate websites

We all make mistakes running our websites. However the nature of those mistakes varies. As your site and organisation grow, the mistakes begin to change. This post addresses common mistakes in larger organisations.

Most of the clients I work with at Headscape are larger organisations – Universities, large charities, public sector institutions and large companies.

Over the last 7 years I have noticed certain reassuring misconceptions within these organisations. The idea of this post is to dispel these illusions and encourage people to face the harsh reality.

The problem is that if you are reading this post you are probably already aware of these things. However, hopefully this article will be a useful tool for convincing others within your organisation.

Anyway, here are my 10 harsh truths about larger websites.

1. You need a separate web division

In most organisations I work with the website is managed by either the marketing or IT department. However, this inevitably leads to a turf war and the site becoming the victim of internal politics.

In reality running a web strategy is not particularly suited to either group. IT maybe excellent at rolling out complex systems but they are not suited to developing a friendly users experience or establishing an online brand.

Marketing on the other hand is little better. As Jeffrey Zeldman puts it in his article ‘Let there be web divisions‘:

The web is a conversation. Marketing, by contrast, is a monologue… And then there’s all that messy business with semantic markup, CSS, unobtrusive scripting, card-sorting exercises, HTML run-throughs, involving users in accessibility, and the rest of the skills and experience that don’t fall under Marketing’s purview.

Instead the website should be managed by a single unified team. Again Zeldman sums it up when he writes:

Put them in a division that recognizes that your site is not a bastard of your brochures, nor a natural outgrowth of your group calendar. Let there be web divisions.

Screenshot of Zeldman's website

2. Managing your website is a full time job

Not only is the website often split between marketing and IT, it is also normally under resourced. Instead of having a dedicated web team, those responsible for the website are often expected to run it alongside their ‘day job’.

Where a web team is in place they are often over stretched. The vast majority of their time is spent on day to day maintenance rather than longer term strategic thinking.

This situation is further exaggerated because the people hired to ‘maintain’ the website are junior members of staff. They do not have the experience or authority to push the website forward.

It is time for organisations to seriously investing in their websites by hiring full time senior web managers to move their web strategies forward.

3. Periodic redesign is not enough

Because corporate websites are under resourced they are often neglected for long periods of time. They slowly become out of date both in terms of content, design and technology.

Eventually the site becomes such an embarrassment that management step in and demand it is sorted. This inevitably leads to a complete redesign at considerable expense.

As I point out in the website owners manual this a flawed approach. It is a waste of money because when the old site is replaced the investment put into it is lost. It is also tough on cash flow with a large expenditure happening every few years.

A better way is continual investment in your site, so allowing it to evolve over time. Not only is this less wasteful it is also better for the users as is pointed out in Cameron Moll’s post ‘Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign‘.

Screenshot of Cameron Molls Article

4. Your site cannot appeal to everyone

One of the first questions I ask our clients is ‘who is your target audience?’ I am regularly shocked at the length of the reply. Too often it includes a long and detailed list of diverse people.

Inevitably my next question is which of those many demographic groups are most important. Depressingly the answer is that they are all equally important.

The harsh truth is that if you build a site for everybody it will appeal to nobody. It is important to be extremely focused in your audience and cater your design and content around them.

Does this mean you have to ignore your other users? Not at all. Your site should be accessible by all and should not offend or exclude anybody. However, it does need to have a clearly defined audience that the site is primarily aimed at.

5. Your site is not all about you

Where some website managers want their websites to appeal to everybody, others want it to appeal to themselves and their colleagues.

A surprising number of organisations choose to ignore their users entirely and build their websites entirely around an organisational perspective. This typically manifests itself in inappropriate design that caters to the managing directors personal preferences and content full of internal terminology and jargon.

A website should not be about pandering to the preferences of staff but about meeting the needs of users. Too many designs are rejected because the boss doesn’t like green. Equally too much website copy uses acronyms and terms that are only used internally within an organisation.

6. Design by committee brings death

Illustration showing why design by committee fails

The ultimate expression of a larger organisations approach to website management is the committee. A committee is formed to tackle the website because internal politics demand everybody has their say and all considerations are taken into account.

To say that all committees are a bad idea is naive and to suggest that a large corporate website could be developed without consultation is fanciful. However when it comes to design, committees are often the kiss of death.

Design is subjective. The way we respond to a design can be influenced by culture, gender, age, childhood experience or even physical conditions (such as colour blindness). What one person considers great design another could hate. This is why it is so important that design decisions are informed by user testing rather than personal experience. Unfortunately this approach is rarely followed when a committee is involved in design decisions.

Instead, design by committee becomes about compromise. Because different committee members have different opinions about the design, they looks for ways to find common ground. One person hates the blue colour palette while another loves it. This leads to design on the fly when the committee instructs the designer to ‘try a different blue’ in the hopes of finding a middle ground. Unfortunately this can only leads to bland design which neither appeals to, or excites, anybody.

7. You’re not getting value from your web team

Whether they have an in-house web team or use an external agency many organisations fail to get the most from their web designers.

Web designers are much more than pixel pushers. They have a wealth of knowledge about the web and how users interact with it. They also understand design techniques including grid systems, white space, colour theory and much more.

Post from Twitter complaining about being a pixel pusher

It is therefore wasteful to micro manage them by asking for ‘the logo to be made bigger’ or to ‘move that 3 pixels to the left’. By doing so you are reducing their role to that of software operator and wasting the wealth of experience they have.

If you want to get the maximum return from your web team present them with problems not solutions. For example, if you have a site aimed at teenage girls and the designer goes for corporate blue, suggest that the audience might not respond well to the colour. Do not tell them to change it to pink. That way the designer has the freedom to find a solution which might be even better than your choice of pink. You allow them to solve the problem you have presented.

8. A CMS is not a silver bullet

Many of the clients I work with have amazingly unrealistic expectations about content management systems. Those without one think it will solve all of their content woes, while those who do have one moan about it because it hasn’t!

It is certainly true that a content management system can bring a lot of benefits. They…

  • reduce the technical barriers of adding content,
  • all more people to edit and add content,
  • facilitate faster updates,
  • allow greater control.

However, many content management systems are less flexible than their owners wish. They fail to meet the changing demands of the websites they manage.

Website managers also complain that their CMS is hard to use. However, in many cases this is because those using them have not been given adequate training or are not using it regularly enough.

Finally, a content management system may allow for the easy updating of content, but that does not ensure it will be updated or even that the quality of copy will be maintained. Many content managed websites still have out of date content or are filled with poor quality copy. This is because the internal processes have not been put in place to support the content contributors.

If you are looking to a content management system to solve your site maintenance issues you will be disappointed.

9. You have too much content

Part of the problem with content maintenance on larger corporate websites is that there is too much content in the first place. Most of these sites have ‘evolved’ over years with more and more content being added. At no stage has anybody ever reviewed that content and asked what can be taken away.

Many website managers fill their sites with copy nobody will read. This happens because of:

  • A fear of missing something – By putting everything online they believe users will be able to find whatever they want. Unfortunately, with so much information being made available, it is hard to find anything.
  • A fear users will not understand – Whether it is a lack of confidence in their site or in their audience, many website managers feel the need to provide endless instructions to users. Unfortunately, users never read this copy.
  • A desperate desire to convince – Many website managers are desperate to sell their product or communicate their message. Text becomes bloated with sales copy which actually conveys little valuable information.

Steve Krug in his book ‘Don’t make me think’ encourages website managers to ‘Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left’. This will reduce the noise level of each page and make useful content more prominent.

10. You are wasting money on social networking

I have been encouraged that increasingly website managers are recognising that a web strategy is about more than running a website. They are using tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to increase their reach and engage with new audiences.

However, although they are using these tools, too often they are doing so ineffectively. Corporate twitter accounts and posting sales demonstrations to YouTube miss the essence of social networking.

Social networking is about people engaging with people. Individuals do not want to build relationships with brands or corporations. They want to talk with other people. Too many organisations are throwing millions into facebook apps and viral videos when could be spending that money on engaging with people in a transparent and open away.

Instead of having a corporate twitter account or indeed even a corporate blog, encourage your employees to start tweeting and blogging themselves. Provide guildelines on acceptable behaviour and the tools they need to start engaging directly with the community that surrounds your products and services. This not only demonstrates a commitment to your community but also a human side to your business.

Screenshot of Microsoft's Channel 9 website


Large organisations do a lot right in the running of their websites. However, they also face some unique challenges that can lead to painful mistakes. Resolving these problems will involve accepting mistakes have been made, overcoming internal politics, and changing the way you control your brand. However, doing so will give you a significant competitive advantage and allow your web strategy to become more effective over the long term.

For more information on how you can make your site more effective read the Website Owners Manual or discuss your site with Paul personally.

There is a followup to this post entitled ‘10 ways to battle site bureaucracy.’ Check it out!

“Hardcore Gasmask” image courtesy of Bigstock.com

  • Regarding #8, I’m having a client who has that syndrome! Funny as hell now that I mention it.
    Regarding #9, I see too many sites with too much pages with “blabla” or “coming soon” text a.k.a. CRAP. But that’s kind of another story. Yet, corporations actually do this on Portugal. Sad…!

  • Really interesting article that rings a lot of bells Paul! I’m still going to believe in the CMS “silver bullet” though! ;)

  • A CMS not being a silver bullet is true. Some clients have to be educated on what a CMS can and cannot provide otherwise their expectations can get the better of them. It might give them more control but it doesn’t build the site for you!
    Nice article Paul :)

  • THIS is gold. Well written, to the point and essential for every person engaged in website management. A great read. Cheers Paul!

  • What a cracking article. Could your next article tackle ‘over coming internal politics’?

  • Paul is spot on regards the silver bullet, but it goes more deeply than this. There is often a lack of understanding that ALL CMS engines require compromise, and it is really the degree of compromise one is willing to accept that makes the choice valuable or not.
    It is true that you can devolve content generation to a larger group of ‘less skilled’ individuals, however, the compromise on this is that you invariably have a larger number of people to train and more importantly – to police, because the chances of error and divergence from agreed publishing practice increase.
    Quite often institutions believe that a CMS will enable a web team to focus on new projects, this is simply unrealistic, the team generally will find themselves semi-managing a larger force of contributors instead.
    If you understand the compromises you have to make, CMS are valuable tools, but they should not be seen as more than tools – they need a whole wrap-around of support, training, policing and policy.
    Some damn fine points in here Paul! Best wishes
    BTW: our site utilises WPMU, migrating from a multi thousand page static environment, its been a challenge to put it mildly.

  • CMS not a silver bullet, shush now … I make most of my living implementing CMS’s.
    Seriously, it’s true that people think that just having a CMS behind a site will cure all their issues without actually thinking that this now takes their web site into the realm of an application and as such requires a considered role out and training.
    They wouldn’t role out a new stock control or accounting application with training, but they are quite willing to do that with their web site.
    Clients need to also realise that when you decide on having a site CMS controlled you need to spend almost as much time and money getting the back end right as the front end.

  • Ray Burnley

    Good list, much appreciated in the team here.
    On #9, surely there is a place for longer content, but maybe not close to top level of a site. Would you advocate an Institutional Respository for the kind of content you reference from University of Aberdeen, or possibly the “blog” model of summary with link to “full” content.

  • Having just redesigned our corporate site, I’m getting a kick out of reading this now. Where was this article 4 months ago???
    I think the heart of most of these issues is a matter of education and attention. Most of these problems could be solved by “managing up” – but only if the larger decision makers have the attention for the education they need.
    People in upper management positions have a litany of things to worry about, and tend to want the corporate website to just be boxed off in a corner somewhere. Just check it off the list, next to last month’s expense reports.
    What you’re rightly advocating is a more holistic approach to managing a website as a growing, living thing, that needs ongoing attention. It’s a bonsai tree, not a cactus.
    Do you have suggestions, Paul, on how to get higher ups to pay attention to that kind of issue?

  • I was having a fun pre-coffee rant with someone that does web work in one of our faculties here about most of these points! There is a CMS ‘project’ going on here that argue with you on points 1-10 and there is no way to convince IT that they shouldn’t run the web.
    In education institutions you get little fiefdoms that control a certain bit of the web presence. Some take on social networks as their niche (usually marketing), others CMS (IT), content (academics or academically minded staff), etc. The design by committee is used to try and build consensus but what you get is the lowest common denominator in order to please everyone…
    Thanks for the post ;)

  • Great list of truths! I will share this with folks in the office. If for no other reason, to show that I am not the only who feels the way I do about these things. Here’s to staying focused on what’s important.
    Keep writing Paul, I am really digging what you have to say.

  • very informative article, thanks..

  • very informative article, thanks..

  • very informative article, thanks..

  • Srdjan Pejic

    Good article, Paul. Just one question, will all your future posts be in the “top #” style? :) I heard on the podcast that they seem to attract more readers.

  • Fabulous article, I only wish everyone shared your perspective(s)!
    The most difficult thing to do is educate the client on these points. Internal politics seem to be the biggest hurdle in overcoming these challenges.
    It was so nice to stumble upon an article that put some of my recent thoughts together so succinctly. Thank you!

  • @Srdjan – Not all of them, only the ones I want people to actually read. :) Lists are definitely more popular. Tomorrows, post is not a list :)

  • Does #7 possibly mean you have worked as an in-house designer in the past Paul? ;)

  • @Gary – actually no, well not for a REALLY long time. I have just seen it too many times. We get brought in and people listen to us because we are the expensive external agency, while ignoring their own staff who have been saying the same thing for years.

  • Can you recommend a CMS that will write and update content for you?
    I totally agree with Jeffrey Zeldman’s description of a marketing team, but I think that monologue mentality of corporate marketing teams needs to be changed. Marketing teams are usually the ones who foster copy and content and if “content is king,” marketing departments will have to change in their approach to be successful. This doesn’t eliminate the need for a web team or division, but eventually that division is going to have to work with marketing to get press releases, event listings, white papers, presentations, product descriptions and all kinds of collateral that have to be thought about through a web focus.
    Excellent write-up and great thoughts.

  • I laughed when I read the article. Truth by truth Paul is describing the company I work for.
    I’ve struggled with discussions about target group prioritization, the fact that there is a difference between printed and web copy among other things. And, that a website is never finished and needs to be developed all the time and not a big re-design every 10 year.
    Thanks Paul! My first visit to your blog (via Smashing Magazine) and I’ve put you in Google Reader.

  • So true Paul. Keep up the good work!

  • Dinu

    Is this a parallel post wt Smashing Mag?

  • @Dinu, parallel but not identical.

  • Great, wonderful post. You touched on just about every major issue in client education — and it’s for all businesses, not just large corporate sites.
    I’m especially drawn to your comment on CMS education — I find that all my clients want control of their site (for good reason), but most view it as an either/or binary. They see their site as fixed or, with a CMS, infinitely flexible.
    Of course, the truth is that a complex website will always be somewhere in the middle — it should be flexible where it needs to be, and only there. Implementation always requires some trade-offs. As it stands right now, there’s lots of education on CMS technology that needs to be done. Silver bullet they are not.

  • Sometimes you just have to let the corporation fail before they can see the terrible vaule and truth in site design.
    The latest craze of irrational thought surrounding me lately is corporate blogs. Everyone wants one, but no one wants to take ownership, maintain it, or write to it with consistency.
    When I start to hear new crazy ideas, in numerous project meetings, I have to bite my lip and look the other way for fear of angry out bursts.
    The worst part is you can back up the importance about listening to your design team with articles like this but does it phase anyone? Usually, not until the project / design has failed.

  • Agree with all these points, especially point number 10.
    Proper solution for any web site lies in a carefully picked ‘cocktail’ of features which are relevant and regularly kept updated.
    There is no longer any point in ‘shouting’ at people. The only page which should be set in stone is probably ‘About us’ page. :-)

  • Thanks Paul, this really is an excellent article you put together. I just wrote up some ideas on how to pull off some of the things you mention above, especially number 10 (how to put a large site on a diet). See http://bit.ly/webdiet

  • Your #1 and #6 ‘truths’ really hit home with me.
    At the company I work at we have 6 different web sites and the turf wars are considerable. This came about as the result of 2 mergers. We aren’t even on the same platforms with 2 sites running ASP.NET, 1 running under Classic ASP, 2 running under LAMP and 1 that’s HTML and Flash. It’s been a mess and promises to continue to be one.
    On #6, a committee is in charge of coordinating bringing the sites together. Good luck with that!

  • Great article – really resonates with me as I’ve inherited a site that exhibits many of these problems.
    For me, getting on the road to recovery involves achieving consensus on overall company strategy and tactics – then you can build a website with a clear sense of purpose and its own set of objectives.
    I’d be interested to know if you’ve seen any good guidelines/articles/blogs about providing guidance for colleagues on blogging/tweeting from a corporate point of view.
    Corporate tweeting is for many an unnatural fit with Twitter’s roots as a personal, disruptive, informatl and transparent medium. But with the critical mass it is acquiring, the speed to audience and all the other benefits Twitter has, it’s already on the marketing agenda for so many companies, celebs etc.
    Personally I think the best corporate uses of Twitter are as a micro-news alternative to RSS feed (aggregating content ‘output’) and also for customer service. Or if you’re small and niche enough, you can get away with making it a more personal thing.
    But then there’s the issue of individuals (employees) who tweet – often about work-related issues. Marketing shouldn’t be the ‘brand police’ in these cases, but some loose guidelines could be useful?
    PS. Highly recommend the Website Owner’s Manual!

  • Andrew Wilson

    Every single point rings true for me at almost every large organisation I have worked for! :-(

  • I have now written a followup post to this you might be interested in. 10 ways to battle site bureaucracy’ – https://boagworld.com/business_strategy/10_ways_to_battle_site_bureauc/

  • In our experience, the IT department doesn’t get SEO at all. And they can really hinder any effort to rank the website to the search engines.

  • Since I spend a lot of time with CMSs for businesses, I agree that there is no silver bullet with any CMS. Content management success is re-enforced through internal processes and training on how best to use the system chosen. This is critical to success in implementing a CMS. Well done on a relevant top ten list that highlights the underbelly of corp websites.

  • A week ago, I quit my job as Web Manager of a major Canadian charity, mostly to pursue my own Web design business full-time, but also because I got fed up with the obstacles that you’ve so perfectly presented here. One thing I might disagree with though:
    Tools like Twitter are indeed intended for person-to-person contact, but I think the fact is that many people are using those tools to stay updated about things. You could argue that email is intended for the same purpose, and that if you want to learn when a new blog entry is posted, you should be using RSS. But offering email subscriptions as an alternative to RSS is one thing that made Feedburner successful. Power-users understand RSS, but everyone understands email.
    I think a lot of Twitter users use Twitter as a means of staying up to date on things, so I see no problem with an organization creating a Twitter account for posting upcoming events, for example. Sure it misses the point of what it was originally intended for, but it provides non-technical users with a means of connecting with that organization in a way that they didn’t before.
    I remember when people used their MSN Messenger handles the way we now use Twitter. Someone’s handle might be, “Jim – Trying to finish this project before Lost starts.” MSN Messenger is not for that purpose either, but people used it that way.
    I would further argue that when people only used Twitter for it’s original purpose – to tell people “What you’re doing right now” – it was mind-numbingly boring.
    So you can create new technologies with whatever purpose you want, but ultimately, the community will decide how they’ll get used.

  • I have to take issue with point #1. Marketing ‘used to be’ a monologue. That has changed. Modern marketing is about the dialogue with customers. We know that you cannot write a monologue in the modern world and get away with it.
    I do agree though that CMS is a not just not a silver bullet, it is actually a bad thing. However not in the way you might imagine. If your site is looking to attract attention from Google and make the most of your visits by providing the information in the most appropriate manner for human browsers, you should not use a CMS. This type of work requires specialised knowledge that the standard CMS user doesn’t even think about. I’m not talking about just the difference between good and bad copy here, but specific writing for the web. You need a web copy specialist, and hence a specialised team.