Bad Websites & the Organizations That Love Them


By Lisa Welchman Most organizational Websites fall far from the concepts that the enterprise had in mind when it conceived its Web presence. What starts with the best of intentions so often turns into a real mess.

We routinely see sites where:

  • customers must log into multiple systems to complete a single task;
  • there are multiple graphical user interfaces which cause confusion when navigating the site;
  • search -- the last chance for information retrieval--is poor.

The original goals seem straightforward enough. For example, many for-profit and non-profit organizations envision the perfect site where customers arrive at their homepage, then click through a seamless funnel that leads to a purchase, donation, membership or inquiry. Perhaps, the organization is a small liberal arts college looking to attract the best and brightest students by presenting a comprehensive view of all it has to offer.

And then there are the sophisticated cases of large enterprises that offer a diverse array of products and/or services. For example, a business with distinct product offerings sold under the same brand name (such as a consumer goods or auto marketer), or a university that has multiple and sometimes loosely affiliated schools.

From the outside looking in, there is opportunity and value in cross-selling and marketing within all these scenarios. But, oftentimes, we find that internal operational management silos -- focused on their own individual product lines or business goals -- aren't able to balance their own autonomy against the accountability to the corporate brand that a cohesive Web strategy demands. The result? Website quality suffers.

In the physical world, a hardware store will display hammers next to nails and paint brushes next to paint to help improve the shopping experience. A car showroom might build a comprehensive rack of brochures for potential buyers to browse. Unfortunately, these ostensibly simple marketing options seem inexplicably unattainable when it comes to replicating this experience online.

Creating and maintaining an effective organizational Web presence requires cross-departmental collaboration and a shared vision. Many organizations fail miserably when it comes to this. Chances are, if the parts of your organization didn't "play well" together pre-Web, they aren't going to do so in the post-Web era. The only difference is that, now, this shortcoming manifests as an ineffective, low-quality Website for all your customers to see. Not only that, it's likely that your organization is missing new business opportunities. That leaves your enterprise vulnerable to competitors.

CIOs and those in IT often exacerbate this issue by acting as a non-strategic service organization, implementing any and all requested Web functionality. They allow internal purchasing and power to drive the technical architecture that supports the web presence, rather than thinking about how this architecture can best serve Website users. IT pros can help their organizations better understand how to create that online "rack of brochures" by supporting improved information management practices.

For some IT organizations, this is a stretch. Those who focus on application and systems development, network management and desktop services may not believe that it's their job to proactively help the organization manage its information. Yes, data management is considered the CIO's domain. But, when IT departments help select Web infrastructure technologies, it's frequently with an eye towards how it will fit into technical architecture (meaning software, servers and hardware) with less emphasis on how it will support the information architecture required to produce a quality Web presence.

For example, most IT organizations aren't involved in the strategy of applying metadata to content so that information retrieval via search is enhanced. So, the organization is left with a Web presence for which the line of business that wields the most money and, hence the most implementation power, within the organization produces reams of (usually) unstructured information and creates a content mess on the servers.

There's a need for hybrid human resources in IT (let's call them "Web people") who understand the importance of clear communications as well as they understand the power of structured, standards-based information architectures that support collaboration and information sharing. You can help improve the situation by populating your teams not just with technical people, but also with "Web people." Your bottom line will thank you for it.

Lisa Welchman is the founding partner of WelchmanPierpoint, a web management consultancy.


4 Comments for "Bad Websites & the Organizations That Love Them"

  • Laura Sambrook December 01, 2010 8:47 am

    In some organisations I have worked in there is a definite culture difference between people who consider themselves to be "IT" (and therefore internal facing, maintaining and supporting systems, providing internal tools and generally supporting the status quo, and perceived as risk averse) and those who think of themselves as "web." [These latter people] see themselves as externally/customer facing and therefore better at communicating with people and more likely to follow new trends and innovations (as that's where there customers will be), and perceived as flighty. I guess the trick is to get the people who can straddle both sides of the divide talking to each other and bringing their colleagues along with them. I am in a business function that is very technical (not in an IT way) but I have web and IT skills. It means I can really understand the business needs and they have someone to come to who won't patronise them because they don't understand what "the cloud" is. It's not always a comfortable place to be, but I think the biggest benefit I can sometimes bring is just to be the person who gets the IT, the web, the comms and the business people in a room and starting to figure out how they can best achieve a common goal together.

  • Tim Evans November 30, 2010 3:22 pm

    If you listen to them, site visitors will--no matter how much they flail around your poor site--tell you what it is they want to do. We web analytics folks try to do this listening.

  • Lisa Welchman November 30, 2010 1:53 pm

    Hi Alexa, Thanks for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment. I hear your point. I used to be a business analyst and when that duty is well performed it can work. But I've seen a lot of business analysts fall down in the web arena over the last 15 years. From where I sit, a lot are not getting the job done, whether they are housed on the IT or the marketing side. Collaboration is hard and, I believe, in many organizations formal change management and some restructuring might need to occur. Lots of people feel that everything about the web is the old wrapped in the new. Document management people think web problems can be solved with tried and true document management best practices. Librarians see web problems as an information classification concern. And some think we just need better business analysts. And, to a certain extent, everyone is right. What's unique is the *blend* of IT, Marketing, Library Services and Document management (and others) that makes "web." If that blend becomes clear and unique enough, perhaps we have a new profession. If it doesn't, then we don't. I'm thinking it'll happen and time will tell. The point is not to make up new vocations but to raise web quality and effectiveness. At the very least, taking in your point, educate business analysts to understand the unique dimensions of the web (they aren't all unique but some are) so they can do their jobs more effectively. Thanks again.

  • Alexa November 25, 2010 11:23 am

    The author says, "There's a need for hybrid human resources in IT (let's call them "Web people") who understand the importance of clear communications as well as they understand the power of structured, standards-based information architectures that support collaboration and information sharing" That's an old staple in systems development. It is called business analyst. It is the role that matches technology to business needs. The only tweak really needed in this case is to work across departments, as the authorized and authoritative representative of corporate brand as expressed in their web site. This is yet another example of an old problem resold as new, with its burden of new techspeak. That may be convenient to sell services, but it is not helpful. It creates an illusion of a new problem where there is not. This eternal reinvention of the wheel, with different words, is the reason why systems development never matures, and unnecessarily reinvents itself.

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