Change is good – but how much is too much

11 November 2015

It’s amazing how much time you can waste, tweaking a website. I launched a new site a month ago and not a day goes by that I don’t make some small change to it. This morning I spent four hours trying to get it to render nicely on a mobile.

It still doesn’t display properly, not sure why. Cascading style sheets are not my forte.

Still, I managed to add some useful content while I was in there, and I fixed a navigation link, so I didn’t waste the whole morning.

But the question remains, how often should you update your site and when should you draw a line in the sand and say “enough, this is done”?

Well that really depends on the size and complexity of the website.

In theory we should publish new content to our sites as often as we can – get our good news stories out there, start conversations with our customers, keep our social media initiatives rolling along and keep the site “live” in our customers’ minds.

But what about our core content? How often should we update that?

I ask this because I have edited and republished every page on my site, on average, around once every second day for the last month. This may be a bit excessive, but I am a perfectionist when it comes to my own content and the site (and the company it represents) are both rather young.

Many of the large corporate websites I’ve worked on had pages that haven’t been touched since they were first published.

I worked on one site that had the same content on the home page for over 6 months. The only thing that changed was the latest news release and that didn’t get updated as often as you’d think.

Regardless of the age-old saying about the immediacy of websites and how they can be updated in real time, most website content isn’t updated half as much as it should be.

There are some pages that are updated regularly, they are small in number and usually related to one of three things:

These are the areas of the site with metrics that management care most about – How much are we selling online? What are our customer saying about us? and What good news are we telling our customers?

The rest of the site, the pages that outline who we are, what we do, how to contact us and how to get support for our products and services, they often remain untouched from the day they are created.

Typically what happens is this:

Rebuild – the site is rebuilt as part of a move to a new CMS platform, a company rebrand or some other large IT or marketing-led initiative.

This is usually done by a project team with KPIs around speed and delivery, rather than content quality or usability. All the content is pushed through the necessary signoffs as part of the project.

There is often a large well-funded team working on the project, with access to any part of the company when and how they need it. This I know, as I have often been part of that team.

At this point, the site has high visibility in the company due to the expense of the project.

Launch – the project delivers and the site is launched to an unsuspecting public. The project team all celebrate a successful delivery and then go on to the next gig.

Maintenance – the site is now turned over the BAU team. Often the same people who were looking after it before the rebuild. The spotlight is no longer on the site, as the project has been delivered.

One of two things tends to happen at this point, depending on the attitude of senior management.

If management are savvy in the world of web, the web team are given a mandate to keep the site current and the tools, resources and authority to do so.

If management are not so up with the play, the web team are left to their own devices with little direction or accountability beyond keeping the lights on.

They may have KPIs around online sales or the number of blog posts they publish, but they will have little or no incentive or power to maintain the overall quality and currency of the site.

I’d like to say that scenario 1 is the more common, but in my experience we often end up at door number 2. Most companies will only put time and energy into a whole-site review when they’re rebuilding the site for other reasons – the new CMS / rebranding exercise we met earlier on.

Many poor web teams end up with a site that has no clearly identified owners, little or no governance around who signs off which changes and a company that is all care and no responsibility. Everyone is a “web expert” these days, thanks to Google, Facebook and their ilk, and will happily tell you what is wrong with the company website, very few people are happy to take responsibility for putting those wrongs right.

So we’ve gone from one end of the spectrum – updating pages every day – to the other – leaving pages to stagnate.

Which is worse?

I can tell you that one of them takes a lot less energy, but that probably isn’t relevant right now, unless you’re the resource manager for a web team.

I do know that I’m planning to tone down my updating rampage from now on. I need to concentrate on other things, like getting clients. But there are other reasons why I need to leave my site be for a bit.

One is Google. Agile though Google is at crawling through the worldly wise web, even those huge data farms can’t reindex my site every day. I need to keep the site structure and content constant for a bit, so Google can catch up with me.

The other is customers, which is more relevant for me. We humans are creatures of habit, we like a bit of familiarity around us. If I constantly change the content on my site, I’m preventing site visitors from forming a comfortable view of what I have to offer.

So I’m going to cut back on my edits. Maybe only update once a week, rather than every day. I’m optimistically telling myself that from now on, the only changes I’ll need to make will be publishing links to my blog posts (ie this) and my You Tube posts. Now wouldn’t that be nice?

As for those larger corporate websites I mentioned, how often should they change their content? The best answer I can give is – when the content needs to be changed.

Yes I know, a “how long is a piece of string” answer, but bear with me.

The key is not necessarily to update or change content but to make sure that content is still up to date and relevant to your customers.

The trick is to make sure it looks up to date.

On the sites I’ve managed, I set a review date against all of my pages – 6 months for information pages, shorter for more high traffic areas, like product or sales materials. I’ve also made sure that there is someone there to conduct that review when it comes along.

Yes, I am a governance girl! I’m quite good at getting people to step up and own site pages.

I also made sure that the last publish date was visible at the foot of each content page on the site. Even if I’d only changed the colour of a button, the page looked up to date.

Remember, perception is reality!