According to a recently released study by ActivMedia, businesses are spending more than $22 billion just to set up and maintain their Web sites. Even more alarming, companies spend about 56 percent of that amount (or more than $12 billion) for basic maintenance of the Web site.

That’s a lot of change going to Web design firms, ISPs, and internal Web hacks just to keep the most current press release, job posting, or event schedule on the Web.

In the race to get on the Web, many companies simply end up posting brochure-like content and paying outside firms to update and change their sites. I propose, however, that companies change this approach and create and maintain dynamic content in-house. Read on for ways to develop a Web system that works for your site and for the bottom line.

Web sites versus Web systems
Although the amount of money spent maintaining a site can be staggering, the problem goes much deeper than mere needless spending. Most companies still view their Web sites as electronic brochures and approach them as the last phase of a long publishing cycle. Let’s look at the typical workflow for a simple press release that needs to be posted to the Web:

  1. Marketing department writes the press release in Microsoft Word.
  2. Press release is marked up by the editing team and returned to the author.
  3. Changes are entered into press release and approved.
  4. Word document is sent to Web design firm or outside agency.
  5. Outside company loads Word document into HTML editor and formats text properly for the Web site.
  6. Text is posted to Web site and links are placed in appropriate spots on Web site.
  7. (One year later) Someone in marketing, customer service, or tech support sees the outdated press release on the Web site and wants to know why it can’t be taken down.
  8. Call to outside design firm to remove simple press release results in a proposal to radically redesign the Web site to meet the needs of the company’s customers.
  9. Someone from design firm finally removes the press release and, if you’re lucky, all the orphaned links.

This isn’t really a Web site problem; it’s a systems problem. Companies have been in such a rush to get to the Web that they’ve allowed marketing, human resources, and public relations departments to contract with outside Web designers in order to develop “systems” to manage their Web presence. Unfortunately, most of these Web designers are no more qualified to build a workflow system than they are to fix your transmission.

Let’s look at the press release example above. There’s no reason why the Web design firm needs to manually move the data out of the word processing document and post it on the Web site. This can easily be automated, as can the automatic insertion and maintenance of Web links.

In my experience, I haven’t seen a single Web site that has automated procedures for removing stale information after its useful life. There’s a general sense in the industry that having 1,000 pages of useless, stale information is more valuable than 100 pages of easy-to-navigate, dynamically maintained content.

Creating a Web system
So how do you help your company use its Web presence to add real value for its customers and partners? You refocus your company’s Web efforts around developing Web systems instead of posting Web sites. This can be done in three phases:

  1. Make your collaboration and workflow hub the center of your Web universe. If you really analyze what information exists in your customer-facing Web site, you’ll discover that almost all of that information existed at one time in some form in your internal collaboration and workflow system.
    You say you don’t have an internal collaboration and workflow system? Sure you do. It’s the series of human steps required to create, collect, and categorize the information that ends up on the Web site, combined with the tools your people use to get their jobs done every day—word processors, spreadsheets, and electronic mail.
    Some companies have gone the next step and developed workflow systems around Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes, but they still end up sending the information out-of-house to be posted to their Web site instead of developing automated ways to create and manage their Web site information in-house.
  2. Take time to document the data creation and publishing process—the WHOLE process. This includes documenting where information slated for the Web site—press releases, announcements, price lists, job postings, events, etc.—originates. You also need to document where Web site user feedback ends up and decide how it can be incorporated into the overall process flow.
    For example, suppose you have a mechanism that automatically posts current job openings on your company Web site. You should also provide an automated system that allows interested job seekers to post their resumes, then routes those resumes to the appropriate hiring manager, and finally, sends confirmation or “no interest” e-mails back to the applicants.
    In addition, you need to have an automated system to remove stale information (such as filled positions) from the Web site, rather than assuming that the Web fairy will eventually get around to it.
  3. Make your Web presence a window into your workflow systems. Rather than viewing the Web site as a repository for information that sits apart from your systems, you should view your Web system as an automated way for interested and approved people to gain access to the appropriate elements of your workflow systems. This paradigm can be extended to not only your Internet presence but also your extranet and intranet presence. Companies need to get rid of the mentality that their Web sites should be read-only versions of processed information originating from their internal systems.

Getting started
Obviously a change this dramatic won’t happen overnight, but you can start taking baby steps right away:

  1. Identify the most specific manual Web site update problem. That problem may only occur in one section of your site, or it may be widespread.
  2. Integrate the creation and publishing of Web site information into your standard workflow process, ensuring that you only enter the information once, and getting rid of as much latency between process steps as possible by removing as much manual intervention as is practical.

If this one section of your Web site becomes an automated Web system, then you’ll have the ammunition you need to support your effort to develop your company’s entire Web presence the right way.
Does Tim Landgrave’s example sound familiar? How difficult is it to remove outdated material from your Web site? Send us an e-mail or post a comment in the discussion below.