After that I always kept an interest in how things were going at Siteimprove. As such, I was delighted a few weeks ago to catch-up with Torben Rytt, CEO of Siteimprove's US operation.
With so many clients at the coalface of online, Torben's insight into current governance pressures & trends is second to none.
But putting techie issues aside, I began our chat by asking how a Danish guy like him could end up in the Mid-West of America..?
Q. So tell me Torben, the only other Dane I know who made it big in the states was that drummer from Metallica! How did you end up in Minnesota?
Hi Shane. You're thinking of Lars Ulrich. He is just a little bit better known than me, but thanks for the comparison!
As you know, Siteimprove started out in Copenhagen back in 2003. Although we still retain a big presence in Europe it was always our intention to enter the US market at some stage, given its size and importance.
About 5 years ago I volunteered to get the show on the road by moving to Minneapolis and have been here ever since. It's a beautiful part of the country and I have settled in well, although the weather took some getting used to!
Q. And how has business been going?
Great. We now employ over 20 people and work with a wide range of organisations across the US and Canada.
While many of our early adopters came from state and federal institutions, more recently we have made substantial inroads into higher education, professional services, law, health care and more.
Overall our customers could be described as Mid-Large in scale. That is, they generate a lot of traffic and are host to complex architectures.
However, the key feature they have in common is just how content heavy they are, with many tens of thousands of web pages each.
And things don't stop there. Some are experiencing growth rates of between 10%-20% per year, which inevitably creates a significant maintenance challenge.
Q. I see. And is this why they are moving towards content automation?
In short, yes - although there are various drivers underlying this phenomenon.
Firstly, labor saving is a key motivator.
We all know that it doesn't take any more time to misspell a word than to spell it correctly, but it does take time to check everything. And on a very large scale site that is no trivial task.
The key advantage of our service is that it negates the need to review thousands of pages by hand. Our tool can automatically scan the very biggest websites in a consistent and timely way. This means that highly paid, highly skilled staff can be diverted away from error checking to more valuable activities.
Added to this is the way our tool highlights issues that do occur.
For example, errors are presented in a prioritised list along with a score for overall content quality and a ranking for each page. What this means is that Web Managers can see at a glance what issues need attention and where to start.
This is especially important to clients for whom brand is important. I mean, who wants to send their kid to a university that can't spell?
Our service gives such institutions the confidence they need that simple errors can be fixed before they become embarrassing problems.
In many ways this is more important now than ever before, as more & more organisations get ordinary staff to update live web pages.
While this might sound great, the problem is that such people are not professional writers. The inevitable result is that more mistakes creep online which (if left unattended) could undermine the quality of experience delivered to users.
Something is needed to stop the rot - and that is where our QA service comes into its own.
Q. Distributed publishing is definitely not without its challenges. Can you describe in more detail how Siteimprove supports this model?
Sure. We made a decision a long time ago to build our product so that anyone in an organisation can use it.
I mean it only makes sense - if staff have CMS access for publishing content, surely they should also have access to the tools they need to make it better?
In that sense, we configured Siteimprove so that anyone at any level can get information on pages that are appropriate to them.
For example, if I am responsible for 10 pages on a site I can review all QA, traffic and other data about them.
Alternatively if I am a Web Manager, I can access both a global view of overall quality and drill-in to various pages or sections. This can be useful if I want to see how quality on one part of a site compares to another.
In fact, this leads-in to another big advantage of our service.
As well helping with basic labor saving and error identification, our tool provides the intelligence that decision makers need for optimising resource allocation.
For example, Web Managers can combine data from our Quality Assurance & Analytics tools to identify people (whether internal writers or external contractors) who are best at creating high quality, frequently visited content.
This information could then be used to reward effort (for good writers), encourage those who are falling behind - or even to justify cancelling the contract of a vendor who delivers consistently shoddy work.
Insight of this type is exceptionally useful for Web Managers who are under pressure to allocate scarce resources among competing priorities.
Q. Broadening the topic a little, how do you see things being managed on the ground as regards Web Governance? What types of people are involved and how are they organised?
It is hard to generalise as there really is a lot of variety.
I know organisations where everything is still routed through a single lone wolf whose job it is to synchronize the work of internal departments (IT, Marketing, etc.) and external contractors.
I have also worked with clients with fully equipped web teams, ranging in size from 5 to 25 people with all the code, design and other skills you would expect.
Yet, no matter what governance model an organisation has in place, the key skill I always look for is project management.
In my opinion every web operation needs someone who can translate business needs into concrete outcomes. This person doesn't need to be an amazing designer or coder, they just need to be able to work with such people to get things done - which isn't always easy, but it is necessary.
Q. Do you find your clients are consciously planning & building for Web Governance, or is it something more haphazard?
In many ways our customers are on the same journey that we ourselves have been on.
I mean if you asked someone in Siteimprove 10 years ago to explain what Web Governance was, you might have got a lot of blank stares. The term didn't really exist then.
But as online has evolved, so have we. We have come to understand how this discipline works and how we can support it.
The same is true for our customers.
Although they may be only vaguely aware of Web Governance, they are growing towards it.
You see, our clients are very practical. They think in terms of specific answers to specific questions, such as How do I reduce errors, how do I increase traffic, how do I improve performance, etc.
Slowly they are seeing how all these activities relate to one another. But for the moment Web Governance as a concept may still be a little abstract for some of them.
Q. What about the growing diversity of devices (tablets, mobile, etc.) Are organisations adapting to that new reality in terms of governance too?
Some are. Despite very limited resources they are managing to create highly responsive sites with great content.
But I would caution anyone who thinks this is easy.
There seems to an in-built temptation in all web initiatives to try to run before you can walk. It sounds so easy to create a mobile or tablet site, that it could be hard to justify not having one.
But the problem is that when such developments are not supported properly, they can become a real maintenance headache.
For example, perhaps after a new mobile site goes live you find that you need to slightly rework content so that it presents better on tablets. Maybe this requires a separate version of each page, and - bingo! - you have just doubled the volume of content you must maintain.
So really, there is no such thing as a free lunch when managing online diversity. Everything extra is extra. Supporting a new platform increases effort and that needs to be recognized and planned for.
Q. And what about budgets and investment. Are these keeping pace with increased maintenance needs?
No. Indeed, even as things stand it is always surprising to discover how few businesses really know what they have online.
For example, before we do a scan of a client's website we often ask them to guess how many pages they have. Typically they are out by a big margin, to much surprise and embarrassment.
But this may be nobody's fault.
It may just be a symptom of how fast content volumes are growing or how distracted teams are by the variety of other activities they need to attend to.
Yet, this lack of visibility translates directly into a lack of resourcing. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.
Part of our mission is to show the real scope and scale of online activity. Overtime, this may demonstrate the need for increased budget.
Q. To wrap up. If you had to give one piece of advice to a Web Manager in 2013 what would it be?
Well, I mostly deal in hard data so I'm going to offer something on the softer side.
We have already discussed how content production is becoming widely distributed and how lots of people are now involved in creating the totality of a site.
Yet, for all their good work, content producers usually get no feedback on their effort. It is almost as if they are invisible.
Web Managers tend to forget that these people already have a day job - and then they ask them to do more! The least we can do is let them know how they are getting on!
So this is my advice.
If you have a publishing model that relies on non-web staff contributing content - talk to them! Let them know all the good they are doing for the website and the business.
Something as simple as 'Hey Donna, just wanted to let you know that all the pages you published over the past 6 months were great. They had really low error rates and are getting great conversions. Thanks so much!'
This can go a long way towards keep staff motivated and interested - and thereby ensure overall quality.