The messy reality of Web site sprawl


For many businesses, life on the Web is a piece of cake. Slap up a site about your company, products and/or services, and you’re done (’s not that easy, but you get the idea). For bigger businesses, especially international ones, things are more complicated. While life for these companies on the Web may start as a single site, over time things change. New sites crop up like unwanted guests at a dinner party, and making them go away isn’t easy. In the same way that city growth can lead to suburban sprawl, company growth and product or service evolution leads to its messy digital equivalent: Web site sprawl.

The many shapes of sprawl

Sprawl comes in many shapes and sizes. It’s not uncommon to see companies with anywhere from 10 to 50 Web sites. Some have hundreds of sites, and in many cases can’t even provide an accurate accounting (e.g., if domain names are not centrally controlled). For global companies, it’s even worse; it can be like the Wild West, where rogue in-country employees or groups launch atrocities against the brand left and right, then never tell anyone at HQ.

Examples of the kind of sites you might find in a company’s Web ecosystem include:

  • Sites for sub-brands
  • Product or service sites that are complementary to the core business (possibly, though not necessarily, sub-brands)
  • Blogs
  • Developer portal(s)
  • Partner portal(s)
  • Intranets
  • Extranets
  • Marketing campaign sites
  • Locale- or country-specific sites
  • Product launch microsites
  • Customer support sites
  • Wikis

And on and on and on…You can find anything one could imagine sticking in a Web site out there, lying in the dark and dusty corners of many company Web servers. While on the face of things, sprawl might seem relatively benign, it’s a big problem for many companies. It has real consequences that can wind up damaging a business and hindering growth, rather than helping it.

The consequences of sprawl

Web site sprawl can be a bit like boiling the frog: at first, it’s barely noticeable, but over time, it becomes crippling and costly. Some consequences are obvious:

  • Operational effort increases: More sites means more people to manage them, whether it’s project managers, content managers or community managers. All of this management overhead adds up. Teams become far-flung, and added complexity may create situations where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
  • Technical effort and complexity increases: Multiple sites can mean multiple servers and content management systems. It also means more code, more developers, more version control. All mean more time and money.
  • Brand erosion can occur: Few companies have robust enough Web design standards to enable distributed teams to launch sites that are “on brand” with a great core user experience (e.g., navigation systems, approaches to content presentation, visual identity). Instead, sites wind up going live that should never have seen the light of day, and brands can be damaged as a result.

One other important consequence is the negative impact to overall user experience. When customers interact with a company on the Web, they have a need they’re trying to fulfill, and sprawl can make it harder to satisfy that need. A disconnected set of Web sites, each with its own navigation and design, can lead to a terrible and frustrating experience for people. In many cases, it can also lead to great company content that’s hidden, which is a lost opportunity to engage people more effectively.

In short, while some Web site sprawl is necessary (e.g., for sub-brands), much of it is avoidable, costly, and potentially damaging.

The patterns that lead to sprawl

So how do companies go from a modest Web site to an unmanageable menagerie of disconnected experiences? The patterns that lead to Web sprawl are common across most of the organizations with whom I’ve worked:

  • Rapid growth: It takes time to design thoughtful, coherent user experiences, and for companies that are growing quickly, time is something in short supply. As a result, it’s often seen as more expedient to build multiple Web sites rather than try to incorporate new content, features and functionality into an existing site.
  • Distributed decision-making: In order to support rapid growth, companies may empower people throughout an organization to make decisions (i.e., to minimize hierarchy and reduce decision-making overhead). While this can have benefits, it can also lead to people deciding to launch their own Web sites, rather than involve whoever owns the main company site.
  • Lack of a centralized publishing platform: Many companies design and build static, bespoke Web experiences, rather than using a Content Management System (CMS) to publish their content. Without a CMS, it can be difficult to adapt to change, which can lead groups within a business to just launch their own sites as needed. Alternatively, if a company uses a CMS that is perceived as inflexible, or that can’t support the needs of different business units or groups, then people may just go around this roadblock and launch their own site on their own CMS. The rise of robust, free CMSs (like WordPress or Drupal) have made this process easy.
  • Global expansion: As companies expand globally, their Web footprint needs to expand as well. Translation and localization are usually best handled by people in-country, which can lead to launching separate instances of company sites in each locale. Technology can also be a barrier in this regard: if a company site is either static or built on a CMS that doesn’t have robust support for localization or translation, then people will just build new sites.
  • Product or service differentiation: In many cases, companies create new products or services that are distinct from the core business (e.g., Amazon Web Services vs. the core retail business). It’s natural that these types of new products or services use separate Web sites, even though it adds to the sprawl.
  • Inflexible site designs: If the navigational system of a site is poorly designed, it may not be able to handle unpredictable changes driven by company growth. The same could be true of site layout, page design, and even visual design. If redesign of these elements to accommodate growth isn’t a possibility, companies may launch additional (micro)sites as a temporary stopgap.
  • Brand evolution: Along with new products and/or services, companies may add sub-brands to the mix as they evolve. These sub-brands will probably have their own logo, visual identity and customer value proposition. In most cases, it makes sense to launch separate Web sites to house the content, features and functionality necessary to support the sub-brand.

At the end of the day, a lot of Web site sprawl is driven by simple expedience (and possibly laziness). It takes far less time and effort to launch a separate Web site than it does to collaborate with others, introduce dependencies, gain approvals, and integrate with an existing site.

Stay Tuned…

If you’re suffering from sprawl, don’t lose hope. Coming up next, I’ll take a look at how to manage unhealthy sprawl through a combination of prevention and consolidation.