Why are websites big?

Why?  The simplicity of this question makes us uncomfortable. It forces us to look at the very core of design decisions.  When designing and building websites we often prioritise elements but how often do people stop and just ask “Why”?

“Why is this here?”
“Why do I need this?
“Why is my website so big?”

This last question is interesting.  Why do some websites have ten pages whilst others have 10,000? What makes a website big?

I am not talking about how to do content strategy nor am I talking about analytic review and content pruning.  I am asking a very simple question: why are some websites bigger than others?

An Imaginary Meeting

A user experience consultant sits across a board room table from a client.  They are discussing a new information architecture project to rationalise the client’s website structure and help users find more things.  Let’s join the conversation:

Client: “Here at XYZ Corp we have 26 departments who all have a communications team and they must all be represented in the new website structure”.

UX Consultant: “Ok”

Client: “Our analytics and user research suggests that our customers are only after three things on the website.  Our current structure means that our customers cannot find our information on our internal accounting division.  This MUST change!"

UX Consultant: “The research shows that your customers don’t need to know about your internal accounting division.  Who said this must change?”

Client: “Dave said so”

Dave: “Yes, that’s right”

Communist Content

Although an exaggerated example, I’m sure some readers will be familiar with this scenario.  In the above example, all departments / teams / products / services (delete as applicable) are treated equal.  But in the eyes of users, some content is more equal than others…

Prior to the web, a customer’s interaction with an organisation would have been face to face or through a telephone.   Time was precious and when first approached by a customer you can guarantee that an organisation had a small list of important things they wanted to say.  What has changed?  The interface between customer and organisation is different (from telephone to website) but, in my opinion, the conversation remains the same.

The problem lies with the ease with which we can create content online.  Before the web I only had a few valuable moments to tell you about my organisation.  I had to be measured and careful in what I said. But online many companies falsely believe that the customer has the time and will to explore.  I wasn’t interested in your internal accounting division before the internet, so why are you telling me about it now?

Face to face and telephone conversations have a natural time pressure filter that ensures only what needs to be said is said. Online, this filter is removed.  I believe this is a crucial point to understand when starting to develop your content review strategy.

Website owners will tell you that content should be prioritised but we “still need to find a home” for the other stuff.  My question is why?

Please don’t misunderstand my point here.  I believe in the role of a good information architect whose job is to design a website structure that can accommodate all the various needs of users and client objectives.  My point is that instead of prioritising content, how often do organisations actually stop and question its very existence?

Client: “We need to have those 100 pages on XYZ because we don’t want to upset the team responsible for them”

UX Consultant: “Why?”

Client: “This section of the website hasn’t been visited in 12 months but we should probably keep it”

UX Consultant: “Why?”

Dave: “Because I said so”

Less is more

With less content, our website structures become more streamlined, our information architectures more intuitive and our users more satisfied.  Out of interest I conducted a brief piece of research.  In three different sectors I looked at five organisations that all offer a wide range of services and (most importantly) all existed prior to the internet. For each sector I calculated the average number of pages on a website:

  • Large International Law Firms: 290 pages per site;
  • Utilities Companies: 297 pages per site;
  • Local Government Websites: 1740 pages per site.

Before readers accuse me of comparing chalk with cheese I acknowledge that these three sectors and the goals of their user groups are inherently different.  However, I still believe it is a worthwhile exercise given that these organisations existed prior to the web.  How can a law firm offering a very complex range of legal services tell their story in less than 300 pages, whilst a local government website fails to do that in 6 times the number?!  Do we really need all that content?

If we think about the 80:20 rule then 80% of visitors to a website are likely to use 20% of the content.  Let’s remove the excess and make the useful content even more efficient!

So why are websites big?

The premise of this article was to ask why some websites are bigger than others. Whilst I’m sure there are several answers to this question, I feel there are three critical points to consider.

No matter the size and structure of your organisation not all content is equal.  Treating it as such will leave your website bloated and confusing.

People who visit your organisation online have the same desires and goals they did before the internet came along.  You wouldn’t waste a customer’s time on the telephone so why are you wasting their time online?

Ensure that the person who is responsible for your websites content is in the right position to make practical, informed decisions?  Why is your website big?  Why don’t you ask Dave?

I suggest these three points so that when you think about your web content strategy you don’t just prioritise content but you begin to question its very existence! Maybe I’m extreme and enjoy wielding my digital scythe too much?  What I do believe is that by starting with the “why” rather than the “what” our websites will be smaller, and in my opinion better.