Net.Working: Reining in Web sprawl

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Businesses are becoming less skeptical and more demanding of their Web sites, and that means the days of experimenting without much accountability back to corporate headquarters is ending.

By accountability, I don't mean only the continuing quest for a real return on investment -- though that's ratcheting up in importance as well. I mean accountability in terms of how tight corporate controls are for content, design and branding issues.

This was inevitable, and should be taken as a positive sign that the Web is maturing as a real business tool. But it may be a bit jarring for business Webmasters who have grown used to a lot of freedom.

There's no shortage of examples of this new top-down control. Look at the front-page story in Advertising Age's Business Marketing this month, which details how IBM, Sprint and Chrysler are all consolidating their sprawling Web empires of many product brands pursuing many different strategies. In the future, designs on all sub-sites will be limited to a few specific templates; brands and logos will get uniform treatments; and issues of contents, databasing and so on will be centralized.

Part of the motivation here is to cut costs. Instead of reinventing the wheel every time a new Sprint or IBM product site comes up, there'll be a formula (of sorts) to follow, and already-built software. But another large motivator is the need to centralize all Web processes against the day when customers order merchandise from all these different product sites. As long as informal anarchy reigns, there can be no effective e-commerce.

Whatever the motivation, in the end it's just good business. Here's another example, from NetMarketing's own front page this issue: At Kodak, the Web site is producing substantial savings. But the corporate brass is nonetheless insistent on developing financial models that weigh the true costs against these savings.

Like many other businesses on the Web today, Kodak has a site that will clearly pay for itself in savings alone, but it's nice to see management making a serious effort to understand precisely how it will actually work out.

David Klein is editor of the Ad Age Group.

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