Our conversation went on a good 40 minutes longer than planned and touched on a variety of topics (including an idea for bringing 'sweet-filled-handgrenades' to client meetings that I think we should pursue!)
In any event, I discovered Lawrence to be a treasure trove of insight, particularly regarding the EU cookie directive and the growing role of technology in Web Governance.
Q. Hi Lawrence. Thanks for your time today. As a starter, perhaps you can tell me how you got into Web Governance in the first place?
No problem. For the past decade or so Sitemorse has been helping organisations in both the public and private sectors manage their online presences.
For much of that time we were perceived largely as a vendor of web technical solutions.
However, that has changed a lot recently and we now operate much more as a supplier of integrated governance services.
This shift occurred partly as a result of our own evolution and partly as a response to an evolution in the market.
For instance, a few years ago it was quite common for clients of ours to ask for point solutions to point problems, e.g. to make something just to check for broken links, or something just to review accessibility compliance, etc.
But no more.
We find customers are now much more interested in the bigger picture of online operations, such as managing corporate risk and brand integrity.
If I had to pick one thing that facilitated this change it would be the e-Privacy 'cookie' Directive from the EU. It really has been a crucial catalyst for getting organisations to take Web Governance seriously.
Q. I see. Do you mean that because organisations are now compelled to have a policy for cookies, they are exploring what else needs steering too?
Exactly. What this directive has done is shine a very bright light onto web operations.
Legal & Compliance people are now turning up at online planning meetings and asking lots of difficult questions. Surprise, surprise - not everything is found to be up to scratch.
For example, one of the most basic issues we encounter when starting an engagement is that clients simply don't know how many presences they have online.
It seems incredible and yet for many very large firms it is a real issue.
Indeed, a while back we completed a project for major UK company whose initial guess for all its websites, microsites, Twitter accounts, etc. was +/-300.
We found 1500.
And that is small potatoes!
It is not unusual for the world's largest companies to operate tens of thousands of web presences.
As such, before these firms can even start to talk about governance for cookies, they must first re-establish some of the most basic rules of online management, including...
- Who can register domain names.
- The standards are used for hosting.
- What is done with old sites.
Some of the things we uncover during such audits can be downright scary.
For instance, we might discover a domain that is registered by someone in a regional office under their own name, who then builds a microsite, slaps on a logo on it and puts it online using a cheepo host provider.
Just think of the brand, ownership and security issues!
It is equivalent to a random employee opening a stall on the street, pasting a logo onto it and saying they are an official business presence.
That gives you a sense of the governance mountain that needs to be climbed in many quarters. Cookies have merely opened the door to this realisation.
Q. That is genuinely scary! And how has Sitemorse itself gone about addressing this challenge?
A key part of our approach is to demonstrate how technology can help manage such issues in a consistent, predictable way.
Indeed, I believe we have already proven our case as regards cookies.
You see, while cookies can seem complicated to Legal or Compliance people, our system allows them to be handled quite easily.
On each site we simply tell visitors the following...
- What cookies are there.
- What they are about.
- Who owns the resulting data.
Everyone can then make an informed choice whether to use the site or not.
Our design implementation makes it easy too. Visitors just click on a 'cookies' button, whereupon a clear description of everything is displayed.
It is this type of expertise combined with our technical ability that enables us to help clients - and has led us into more wideranging projects too.
For example, over the past few years our Cookie Reports tool has crawled a million-plus websites to build one of the world's biggest databases of known cookies.
In addition, we have learned how Web Teams need to be configured to deal with such issues. It means properly integrating the views of Legal & Compliance people, as well as the usual IT, Communications & Marketing folks.
Q. I see. And are these roles now being reflected on web teams? Who do you think is best overall for leading online governance?
There is a great variety of roles supporting any web operation.
As a rule of thumb we typically deal with Heads of Online or Heads of eCommerce. In bigger firms we also interact with Digital Risk Managers, Digital Compliance, Legal & Regulatory people, etc.
My own experience tells me that the best people for managing Web Governance are those with a good business head and a relentless focus on KPIs ... though with one very important proviso.
While online managers can be great at focussing on sales or revenue targets, they can sometimes be a bit sloppy as regards issues of compliance or general quality.
I mean, there is sometimes a temptation to think "If I am hitting of my sales targets, why bother with improving quality?" Indeed, I had a chat with a retailer only last week who said "if people don't complain about errors on my site, why should I fix them?"
But here's the rub.
Each quarter we publish a UK Retail Index that measures the online quality of Britain's top retailers.
Why is it that two of the best known firms to close in recent times (HMV & Waterstones) ranked among the worst as regards web performance, accessibility and general functionality?
The truth is that those sites delivering poor online quality are on a downward curve.
In short, if retailers think they can get away with low standards, they're going to be proved wrong.
Q. Is this message getting through?
The biggest challenge is getting people to pay attention.
For example, whenever we present to a new client, we ask how many people in the room have used the web in the last week. Of course, all hands go up. We then ask how many saw a broken link or experienced a problem. Again, lots of hands up.
So there is obviously a lot of awareness about the poor state of online quality.
But, when we ask about quality on their own websites, we find there are few real measures and little willingness to even talk about it. And if we are having difficulty at that first step, what are our chances of being heard by board members? It's quite disappointing, especially now.
Although the current recession has put a lot of organisations under pressure, it has also upped-the-ante in terms of what is needed to stay ahead.
Think about it. 10 years money was being thrown at online. But not anymore ... "You want resourcing? Sharpen you are worth it!"
What we try to do is show how governance fits this model.
For example, one of the simplest things we can already do is stop wasteful duplication by listing everything an organisation has online.
In this way governance is seen as generating savings - not costs. If we continue to follow this line of reasoning, we might be able to get CEOs to listen.
Q. Getting heard isn't easy. Are there any other reasons for that?
Yes. I think a real challenge for many organisations at the moment is the compressed lifecycle of online.
A company that took 100 years to build a brand, may have spent 10 years perfecting its corporate website. Then about 3 years ago it found it had to tackle mobile in a big way; while at the same time trying to get to grips with social media.
For the really top players the difficulty is doing this in a predictable way across a diverse organisation, e.g. ensuring the same T&Cs, privacy statements, etc.
For our part, we show how technology can assist this process by automatically tracking for quality and consistency - just like we did for cookies.
Q. Do you think we'll ever get there? Will Web Governance ever be stable?
I really can't say.
We have seen how the market is moving towards more exacting standards for governance. The attention that is currently being devoted to cookies is migrating to other areas.
As this shift happens, we are determined to help our clients focus on maintaining quality by delivering the technical solutions they need.
But I also feel the web itself still has some growing up to do. There is too much fluff and too many vague concepts being thrown around.
In many ways, vendors are at fault. We promise too much and deliver too little. We need to be more specific.
I mean, let's replicate what we have done for cookies. That issue there was clear and transparent, with no wriggle room. It was a legal obligation with a compliance requirement.
In addition, the lessons of HMV and Waterstones must always be on our minds. Ultimately, we don't implement better Web Governance because the law 'makes' us do it - we do it because good online quality is essential to business survival.