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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.

SEOMoz

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.

Doug Kessler

Published 23 May, 2011 by Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler is a founder and Creative Director of B2B marketing agency Velocity and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

19 more posts from this author

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Saman Mansourpour

Saman Mansourpour, Partner at TheAgency

This isn't at all surprising. Governance for larger organisations is more often about future proofing what's new, not ratifying what's already live.

For many organisations, the commercial viability of sorting out their large web footprints just doesn't warrant the expense.

over 5 years ago

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Vicki

Great points. You mentioned the words 'basics' and 'discipline' in your post. My take on those words is that some sites seem to ignore the basics - in terms of site construction, user friendly and seo. My thoughts on discipline is that we are truly in the age of overload. There are so many websites online, information available, strategies to implement - trying to do too much and not doing enough effectively is hurting many business owners and their website.

over 5 years ago

Stephen Cullen

Stephen Cullen, Business Advisor (Marketing) at CEIS Ltd

An excellent post, and for those with the time I can recommend looking at the Gilbane Groups White Paper.

So many websites are designed with "satisfactory" performance in mind rather than working towards delivering Best Practice principles. Too many hackers me thinks!

over 5 years ago

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adam

good post , client objective has to do with understanding the client and their mind set and their plan . Often times clients do not have an idea what go's into a website / online marketing and cant make the connection. What's been working for us is that we provide an analysis / report that contains usability/accessibility/compliance errors for the clients website and we speak in terms of customer retention and increased revenue . If you speak in those terms to a CEO of an organization they understand it better, therefore may feel better about making a financial investment. Excellent post!

over 5 years ago

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Joel Dixon

Doug,

Great post!

I really like the breakdown into symptomatic and systematic issues/remedies. As a WCM solutions consultant I'm constantly having to temper prospect expectations to separate what problems a WCM tool will and won't solve.

In fact, I recently did a conference presentation that outlined these differences and the fact that many website projects focus too much on the "web" and "design" elements but forget the more important "site" architecture and "content" elements.

Tools like a WCMS help with symptomatic issues but a greater emphasis on Web Governance can only address systematic issues.

over 5 years ago

Sarah Alder

Sarah Alder, Managing Director at Cranmore Digital Consulting Ltd

Great post and thanks for the signposts to such useful information. From my (past) experience of managing a set of websites in-house I think organisations get caught up in elements of both symptomatic and systematic errors. For instance howls of protest from a senior person over a small error on a form can divert work plans for several teams for a day or more. Similarly hang-ups on who is allowed to publish content can divert attention from the quality of the content that is being published. I think the guidance you have pointed us towards will help web managers enormously in fighting off the pressures on them. Thank you.

over 5 years ago

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Lisa Barnett

The Marketing Department and Web Governance at my Fortune 100 company are decentralized and weak, but I have been able to make strides in support of accessibility, and usability to some degree, by linking into existing, powerful systems. In our case, that's IT and Regulatory Compliance, who have been instrumental in facilitating my efforts to make websites across our enterprise more accessible and usable. Getting accessibility and usability standards integrated into IT's SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle) means that product owners understand what is required, how they will be assessed, how to get help, and what the risks of non-compliance are. A formal, pre-launch risk assessment creates visibility and accountability, and links Compliance to the Development cycle.

over 5 years ago

Guy Harvey

Guy Harvey, Marketing Consultant - Social Media and Media Relations at Human Factors International

Great article. Thanks.

over 5 years ago

Debbie Pascoe

Debbie Pascoe, Sr. Manager at Accenture Interactive

Very good article Doug. Here are some additional statistics, based on our many years in this space:
- 10%-15% of pages are missing traffic tags, many more are passing inaccurate data, which undermines data accuracy and decisions based on it
- 2%-4% of content is redundant, which wastes technical resources, increases cost and complexity of maintenance, and distorts analytics
- 15% of pages have 1 or more broken links, which undermins user experience, effects navigation pathways thereby distorting analytics
- 80% of pages have missing or poorly aligned meta attributes, undermining search productivity
- 50% of pages have a PII vulnerability

Across industries, organizations are struggling with the fact that web environments are increasingly complex, dynamic, and volatile. In such an environment, the implementation and enforcement of defined web standards is imperative.

It is a landscape we know well. Our software and services are helping companies around the globe implement the tools and processes necessary to get control of this unruly environment.

Debbie Pascoe
Accenture Interactive

over 5 years ago

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Ian Waugh

I think as web professionals we can be guilty of helping clients/employers to move too far into the realms of what's new and exciting while ignoring the fact that most people are still getting the basics wrong.

over 5 years ago

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Steve Hennigs

What a fantastic article!

A content management system can only take an organization so far and can leave huge gaps in the areas covered by this piece. Unfortunately it seems as though some organizations can be led to believe that the CMS is the answer rather than the problem.

Things like misspelled words in navigation, pages missing titles, and invalid coding seem to run rampant on the web and the first step to ridding everyone of these errors is the awareness that this article provides.

Keep up the great work!

over 5 years ago

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