Do You Know How Many Websites You Own?

lots of objects that are hard to count

Do You Know How Many Websites You Own?

During the final session of June’s IWMW19 conference, the University of Edinburgh’s Jonathan Trout asked the audience to raise their hand if they knew how many websites their university owned.

No hands went up.

Shifting the question to who knew to the nearest fifty, a few hands were raised.

To be honest, the responses weren’t surprising. Web estates (collections of affiliated websites) are a natural legacy of easy-to-access web technologies, unclear website objectives and loose governance.

Higher education invests time, money and energy in building websites, creating key institutional assets, but without effective oversight no one knows if these assets generate appropriate returns. Moreover, maintaining large, complex web estates is significantly more expensive than running smaller, optimised digital ecosystems.

Cataloguing and enumerating websites is prudent, responsible and tactical. But, counting sites isn’t the real goal. The strategic objective is knowing that a web estate advances an institution’s marketing and communications goals without exposing it to unassessed risk.

Let’s take a look at why web estate oversight matters and what to do when you don’t have a grip on website proliferation.

Why Do Universities Have Too Many Websites?

Historically, higher education website sprawl has three underlying causes:

  • Universities have been slow to perceive the benefits of digital services and communications operating within clear governance frameworks (roles, responsibilities and accountabilities);
  • Post-secondary education’s federated administration allows individual departments, units and individuals substantial autonomy in creating websites and they regularly exercise it;
  • Central digital or IT services teams often lack the bandwidth to respond quickly enough to request for appropriate solutions and they may not have the authority to ensure independent efforts remain within agreed policy guidelines.

The outcome can be thousands of sites, without clear ownership, running on diverse content management systems, in varying states of repair. Further confusion may be generated by rogue sites operate outside an institution’s principal domain naming scheme.

In theory, this portfolio approach might be positive. In practice it is a symptom of the following: 

  • A website may not have been the appropriate solution in the first place. In which case neither the originator’s objectives nor the intended audience’s needs are being met – neither of which is desirable.
  • Site content become stale and neglected. Users have negative experiences. When  prospective students stumble across these sites, the consistent user journey they were experiencing can be broken, leading to confusion and potential loss of confidence in the underlying institution.
  • The underlying site technologies (servers, web servers and content management systems) ‘decay’: performance and integrity can be compromised and institutions expose themselves to security and privacy risks.

How to Solve Having Too Many Websites – Start Counting

The first step in solving a problem is recognising there is one.

We’ve scanned the page and site structure of hundreds of higher education websites, accumulating evidence that many universities run web estates – often without clearly knowing if those sites continue to meet their audiences’ needs.

Step one is to perform a comprehensive web estate inventory, a tricky mix of science (scouring IP addresses) and art (deducing websites of interest), to build the ‘web estate database’. This challenge could be met with custom written scripts and code, but independent digital services providers have tried and tested discovery techniques, so why bother?

Step two is to attach owners (named individual or business unit owner) to every site identified in step one: because, ownership enforces accountability. This step can only be performed in-house. Tracking down website owners takes time. For large web estates this phase may last months rather than weeks. An unintended consequence of this exercise is that some sites can be taken down, as owners concede sites no longer meet user needs and the future of others is opened up for discussion.

Step three is maintaining the web estate database. Even if a digital governance framework is put into place, there will still be some residual autonomy in new website creation. Other sites will be ‘abandoned’ through staff turnover or changes in research focus. And, site owners may not be consistent in patching or updating their CMSs or JavaScript used on their sites to enforce security and data privacy. 

It is sensible to re-run the inventory process from time to time and update the database accordingly.

Web Estate Oversight is More Than Enumerating Websites

Accountants like balance sheets because they clearly set out an organisation’s financial assets and liabilities. Similarly, a ‘balance sheet’ of website assets and liabilities clarifies the scope and scale of website proliferation.

However, with all due respect to the accounting profession, keeping track of assets and liabilities (websites) is good, but ensuring assets further an institution’s objectives and liabilities don’t damage an institution’s reputation is better.

The strategic objective behind knowing all of your websites is to ensure that individually and collectively they fulfil an institution’s digital goals, so that visitors can perform their top tasks, experience consistent user journeys all while encountering high quality content.

Counting websites is the first step on that journey.

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