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.

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

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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  • Often out of date – Because there is just so much content, it becomes next to impossible to keep everything up-to-date.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

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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


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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.

  • Great post and well thought out issues too. Now who will have the balls to carry it out?

  • Genius!

    Of course Paul there is one underlying assumption – that you have a decent CMS able to implement these policies.

    Otherwise they could easily create even more work!

    That’s quite a large assumption too – I am continually shocked at how many large organisations have NO CMS whatsoever!

  • Some great points there but one extra that I feel is worth including…

    All good writters write with the reader in mind, this approach should also be used for all decisions in managing your website. More and more larger companies that I work with need coaxing away from building their website around their company structure rather than what is right for their customer.

    Just because a company has 15 department directors doesn’t create a need for 15 sections to the service area on the cwompany website. If some of these services cross over so much that it is impossible the target customer to differentiate between the two, structure the site in a way that is right for those customers.

    This is definitely a change in thinking that is easier to achieve by an external agency than an established internal department.

  • Whilst I agree with the general principle, I’m a little wary of rules such as “Pages that do not meet a minimum thresholds [sic] of page views … will be unpublished until rewritten.” A page might have outstanding content, yet be organised poorly within the site hierarchy. Additionally, some content might be extremely valuable to a very small number of people.

    I would definitely suggest taking in-bound links into account as well, but I wouldn’t place any definitive rules stating that content must be deleted if it doesn’t fulfill a tiny number of criteria.

    • Yes. How about a print-view-only version of the page that delivers the text in the print.css or nearly-no styles, emphasizing that the content is provisional but also making it available, and taking redesigns etc out of the review equation ..

  • Melinda

    This could be the start of a beautiful thing! Each organization needs to review this as a starting point and operationalise it to suit them. In particular, with reality in mind! Who will monitor? Who will review? Who will make the call to unpublished the page? How would this work in asmaller organization? I’d love to hear from business owners who are already enacting a policy of this type.

    • The great things is that nobody needs to review or unpublish. Most CMS would allow this to be an automated process with a bit of work. That way nobody can get the blame it just happens :-)

  • Crys

    Got any great suggestions on how to convince the overly-red-taped, overly political, “the department who maintains the site is possessive and ignores the product the website is about” type of organization that they should be using a CMS (and maybe that the people who code the product should be involved with writing the content so it’s not wrong more often than not)? I think you’re right about making it policy rather than a personal battle, but many companies like that simply don’t use any kind of CMS because, as you said, everyone wants a stake and thinks they’re the most important — and that means every page has custom layout, design and coding…

  • Alex

    Speaking from experience I would agree with comments that say you need an up to date CMS for numbers 2 and 3

    We already have a CMS that impliments number 3 and it is a pain in the neck because:

    a) half the time the emails that tell you content has expired don’t arrive, and the CMS gives you no other warning

    b) the cms is so complicated that all ‘review this content’ requests come to me as no one else wants to learn how to use it, I then have to go to the person responsible for the content, who 99% of the time will say. I’m too busy at the moment, (scan page for 2 seconds) it all looks fine.

    c) We can only access the CMS on site. So if a page expires on friday night, generally we can’t update it till monday morning unless we fancy driving in on the weekend.

    All in all i’m glad we are getting a new cms soon.

  • Robin

    For chopping down the number of pages on a huge website, perhaps the threshold for challenging the existence of a page could be where it is ranked in the complete list of pages?

    That way, a web manager can work out many pages his team of editors can reasonably keep tabs on, and regularly challenge any pages which fall below this threshold.

    In theory, this should keep the amount of pages to a manageable level. It can be written into a policy as well: “The web team has the capacity to maintain around 2,000 pages. This means the any pages which fall outside the top 2,000 must make a convincing business case for remaining on the site”.

  • “Webpages that has not been update” …?