Clean Up That Web Mess! 2

In the rush to serve customer needs, companies have created a hodgepodge of sites. IT can lead to a coordinated strategy by driving best practices.

Michael Healey, Senior Contributing Editor

November 5, 2010

9 Min Read

How many Web sites does your company operate, and how well are those sites coordinated in terms of navigation, search, and security? If you answered "too many" and "not well," join the crowd. Forty-four percent of the 326 business technology professionals who responded to the InformationWeek Analytics 2010 Corporate Web Presence Survey run more than five separate online sites; 14% manage more than 50 sites.

Unfortunately, we don't seem to be very good at it; only 39% of respondents at companies with customer-facing Web services provide customers an integrated system for navigation and search across their various sites, and 56% offer them single sign-on.

Most businesses have rushed to patch together their Web interfaces over the past decade or so, ending up with disparate systems for sales, support, vendors, marketing, and employees. The problems extend deep into the company--different business units and departments rarely meet to review an overall vision for a company's Web presence.

It's tough enough to get a new site or system up and running; pulling all the sites or systems together is much tougher. Companies always talk about being "best in class," but only 13% of poll respondents give their customer-facing online efforts top marks; 20% rate them fair or poor.

IT can fill a real need here. An Internet-facing presence is arguably one of the least expensive investments a company can make, compared with sales reps, customer support staff, printed catalogs, and so on. But a poor Web presence can cost you customers, prospects, business partners, and more. IT needs to help encourage online growth while protecting the company and providing stewardship of the user experience online. The goal must be a comprehensive and well-integrated Web presence.

Which Of These Web Services Do You Provide To Customers?

The Customer Doesn't Always Come First

It's rare to find a company today that can't transfer phone calls between divisions. Call the wrong office and, generally, someone there looks up the right number and transfers your call. So why haven't companies pushed this ability to the Web? The majority of respondents with customer-facing Web services don't provide a common portal for customers; 44% acknowledge they have some work to do to improve usability.

It gets worse. Even if customers can find the sites they need, just over half of companies provide single sign-on systems. The rest require multiple logins and passwords for each site. You know the drill: Enter one password to log into the company's e-commerce site, another to access customer support, yet another to get into the customer forum--you even need a separate password to sign up for newsletters.

So the one public face IT presents is in need of a serious upgrade. Is it any wonder people blame IT when they get frustrated by the Web mess we've made?

We don't necessarily do any better when it comes to employee Web resources. Sure, 83% of respondents provide Web-based e-mail access and 70% remote connectivity, but it drops off after that. Only 38% of those providing Web services to employees provide a common, integrated portal for access to internal and external resources. Only 42% provide single sign-on across their different systems. And a whopping 67% of companies leave users on their own when it comes to managing the different user names and passwords they work with online. Talk about a security hole.

How Many Websites Do Customers Have To Use To Access All Your Company's Services?

If You Build a Better Web Site, Will They Come?

"Our site just sits there," comments an IT director who opted to remain anonymous. "We spent a fortune building out a new customer-service system, and nobody uses it. What a waste."

Truth is, many of us could make that comment. Businesses launch and promote countless sites and related initiatives, only to watch them die on the vine. Most times, IT isn't even aware of the project until it's well under way. That keeps IT out of the loop from the obvious standpoint of information security, but there's also often no consideration of data integration needs or long-term budgeting for maintaining and operating the site.

The first question everyone should ask when it comes to any Web initiative is: "Will they use it?" IT has a major role to play in answering that. The Internet is an amazing place for data junkies, full of traffic trends and competitive information, but most parts of your company, especially marketing, aren't aware of this potential or are overwhelmed by it. Work with your data analysts to build baseline tools to measure the potential for any new project, using your existing analytics data combined with external data from vendors such as Compete, Nielsen, and Quantcast.

All this raw data analysis will help establish the overall potential for a particular project, including market size and competitive landscape. This in turn will help ensure the company is investing its Web dollars wisely.

Set The Best Practices Bar High

OK, let's say you know customers will use an online tool--what's your plan to roll it out? Thirty-eight percent of our poll respondents complain about the lack of an overall Web strategy, and only 26% take a collaborative approach to Web site design and usability. IT must provide guidance, architecting a framework other groups can build on. Don't try to take over; IT must pull the expertise and knowledge of the different departments into this framework. We may think we know about customer support, for instance, but if we don't engage the people who talk with customers every day, we'll likely miss the most obvious solutions.

Case in point: live chat. Most companies focus on it as a tool only for the experienced online user. However, if you ask the customer-service reps who answer the phones, many swear by online chat; it's often easier to direct customers to an online chat than to walk them through a process by phone.

Work across the company to establish a best practices framework for your integrated online initiatives. (There's a chart in the extended version of this report.) Think of this framework more as a consulting guide than a technical spec. It doesn't replace the rigor of a needs analysis and a design and development plan, but you can use the best practices framework to steer all related Web-site activity, once you get company-wide acceptance for the approach.

For example, when it comes to site navigation, a uniform spot for help, home, corporate information, contact info and login is a good starting point when your company's sites have spun out of control. When building consensus, lean heavily on the marketing folks--they're most likely to be the ones breaking the rules later.

Security is a place where IT must exert best practices--and prove that it can balance business needs with risks. More than two-thirds of our poll respondents maintain centralized control over security settings and DNS. However, most forfeit centralized control when it comes to content and application development.

While that may seem like the perfect compromise for most IT pros--centralize the most technical parts of the Web presence and yield to pressures to decentralize content and app work--the wheels start to fall off when you think about the potential security impact. Spread out your posting and applications too much, and you're suddenly open to sloppy code or malicious links hidden within your content. "The reason most companies shy away from tighter content control is the fact that it smacks of 'Big Brother,'" says Tony Noblett, president of security firm Socair Solutions.

But done properly, educating users and making them responsible fosters faster content flow without a cumbersome and costly approval process, and it enables widespread expansion of systems.

Information integration's another key area of a best practices framework. "Enter once/use often" should be the mantra for a corporate Web system. The first target? Synchronization of employee, customer, and vendor information, even if you can't get single sign-on.

A big positive of this framework approach is that it lets IT avoid dictating behavior around Web site look and feel, color schemes, and marketing messaging. Instead, it can focus on proven elements of a successful system, including site search, usability testing, standard navigation, and performance benchmarks, as well as IT core competencies such as security and data integration.

How Would You Rate Your Customer-facing Web Setup?

Don't Forget Collaboration

Despite the immense set of options the Web creates for companies to connect with customers, and the high stakes if they get it wrong, most companies tackle their Web presence without collaborating across functions and business units on strategy. Only 11% of poll respondents report a truly collaborative approach to their corporate Web strategies. The rest cite marketing, senior management, and even IT as the drivers. A frustrated 6% acknowledge their strategy "changes with the wind."

Of course, you could brush this off--your Web strategy has been in place for years, there's not much need for ongoing collaborative strategic planning. But you'd be doing your company a great disservice. For example, large-scale social networking is still a young phenomenon and represents the newest type of Internet presence for most businesses. And around this new media, there's even less collaboration than for the Web. Just 8% of respondents collaborate on their companies' social networking strategies, finds our 2010 Social Networking in the Enterprise Survey.

This lack of coordinated strategy hurts companies as they try to set priorities. The most cited challenge for managing a Web presence is competing demands, and budget issues rank No. 2. It's a recipe for IT migraines.

Which web services do you provide to vendors and suppliers?

Best Web Face Forward

More than one-third of companies we surveyed have projects planned or under way to help consolidate their logins and sites for customers. But we need to go beyond security and logins and become the drivers of a broader vision. Ask IT people what the Internet means to them and you'll likely hear: "Cloud." Ask marketing folks and they might say: "Facebook." Operations: "Supply chain." Management: "Money pit." Truth is, they're all right. The company has multiple goals online, and they don't necessarily operate as complementary forces.

As our survey results show, many companies let business units or divisions go their own ways online, leaving IT to pick up the pieces with regard to security, support, and login integration. But the rise in customized sites and domains is a permanent state--call it the messy side of Web 2.0. IT must expand its role beyond administration and centralized security into a data and systems design role. In that role, it must accept continual site growth and change, but also lay out clear best practices, including common standards that can evolve over time. This is the perfect time for IT to start guiding the discussion.

About the Author(s)

Michael Healey

Senior Contributing Editor

Mike Healey is the president of Yeoman Technology Group, an engineering and research firm focusing on maximizing technology investments for organizations, and an InformationWeek contributor. He has more than 25 years of experience in technology integration and business development. Prior to founding Yeoman, Mike served as the CTO of national network integrator GreenPages. He joined GreenPages as part of the acquisition of TENCorp, where he served as president for 14 years. He has a BA in operations management from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an MBA from Babson College. He is a regular contributor for InformationWeek, focusing on the business challenges related to implementing technology, focusing on the impact of Internet- and cloud-centric technology.

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