Studies show large websites are failing to deliver on the most basic expectations for usability and accessibility.

Why is this? How does it impact marketers? And what can they do about it?

Think about the online customer journey through many large informational sites as a kind of train voyage. Digital marketers are editing the wine list in the dining car, when their attention should probably be on staying on the rails.

Four out of ten passengers don’t even find the station because of bad signage (poor SEO practice). Two buy tickets to the wrong destination (unclear categories). One gets motion sickness (random use of colors and fonts). Another changes trains accidentally (inconsistent link text). Two simply fall off the train (broken links).

How many customer journeys fulfill any reasonable expectation of predictability? One in four marketers told Forrester that improved customer experiences would be the primary business driver for their web content management investments in 2011.

They’d be wise to start by looking at how their site performs on basic usability issues. The worst-case examples above have some statistical accuracy.

An examination of 900 top websites from the KWD web ranking list showed:

• Almost 18% of the companies had five or more average errors of accessibility, usability or compliance per page.

• The 100 largest companies averaged more than six errors per page.

• Of 88,000 web pages scanned, one-third lacked any basic meta descriptions.

• Ironically, Google ranked 310th in terms of SEO, accessibility and usability.

• Only three of the 920 websites averaged less than one error per page.

Why this dysfunction? A recent paper from Accenture describes the web as a place untouched yet by traditional business disciplines (Total Quality Management, design for maintainability, etc.).

At the same time, broadband and mobile connectivity have led to an explosion in the volume of content needing management.

As with many things, the problems seem to boil down to people and culture. As the needs of large sites,  and large, multi-site web estates, grow and the teams that manage them grow proportionally, the structures and tools to ensure the site experience stays on the rails haven’t kept up.

The remedies for large website dysfunction seem to fall into two groups, symptomatic and systematic. Symptomatic remedies fix specific issues, such as broken links. Systematic remedies address the disease behind these issues.

Here are five ways, some systematic and some symptomatic, that marketers can assess and fix these basic website quality issues:

Web governance

As Econsultancy guest blogger Graham Oakes recently described in his post “Why should I care about governance” and others have eloquently defined, web governance is the way organisations make decisions and create accountability for websites.

It has a bottom-line impact on sites’ usability. The gold standard in governance today: A recent document from BSI called PAS 124 (there’s also a free guide to PAS 124 and web governance from Magus).

Global content studies

The Gilbane Group has published a series of white papers, case studies and best practice reports that describe how organisations can get the most out of their content management systems.  

Communities like Econsultancy

J. Boye has also established a number of communities for web operations professionals that provide an excellent venue to share knowledge and experience. They are invitation-only and selective, but worth it.


This SEO marketing stalwart provides a handful of beautiful tools for managing the symptomatic faults of website usability. Note that it has recently updated their on-page keyword optimisation tool and crawl test.

Web Quality Platforms

A hybrid between systematic and symptomatic approaches, ActiveStandards is a popular piece of cloudware that helps dozens of large organisations track the compliance and performance of their site content.

The dashboard and reports cross the divide from symptoms to systems. (Yeah, this is a shameless plug for a client, but they’re honestly alone in the market, and there’s real merit to the tool. Promise.)

For the first two decades of the web, it seems like sites have simply trundled along the rails of quality, usability and operability, with ad hoc fixes and teams to guide them.

With the explosion of devices and content, bigger sites and multinational web estates are struggling to keep up. Expect to see the web governance and compliance space to blossom in the coming years.

We’d love to hear marketers’ experience with website compliance and operations issues in the comments.