With the emergence of Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and blogs; the development of the iPhone, iTunes, the Kindle, and the pending iPad; and the continued utility of email, which has only been enhanced by smartphones — well, there’s a question haunting the status quo of Web development for publishers:
Do you really need all that Web site?
We’ve been enamored with the big site for more than a decade now — a shovelware monstrosity that has mutated to include e-commerce, supplementary data, rapid online publication, and complex search engines.
Designers slave over these sites, and entire departments try to analyze the data and make sense of it. Domain-level sites produce a lot of related activity because they’re the centers of our online identities, the foundations upon which we’ll build, the areas of wise investment and strategic renewal.
But is that where your brand generates the most value online? Is that where you have your most dynamic community?
Is your .org, .com, or .edu going to remain the center of your future digital identity?
If you’re certain that your most profitable, highest impact, and smartest move over the next 3-5 years is to do more at your main domain URL site, then it probably makes sense for you to build an appropriately extravagant presence there. But what if you’ve been blinded to alternatives? What if you’re greatest value is to be found on Twitter? On Facebook? Through email? On devices?
And what is the opportunity cost if you’re overspending on a set of dressed up directories that your customers really don’t care much about?
Basically, what is the purpose of that Web site you’re running?
It’s an interesting question that’s posed nicely in a post by Mitch Joel on his TwistImage blog, which is itself an example of the issue at hand.
Mitch’s company has a complex site, but his overall digital presence is mainly supported by the TwistImage blog. For cents on the dollar, he cultivates a loyal Twitter following, blogs actively, and lets the viral work its magic.
Contrasted to the search-centric mentality we’re accustomed to, the concept of the “feed” has renewed the power of browsing. At the same time, the sheer abundance of information has ensured that alerting is and will be more important to information awareness. Meanwhile, devices like the iPhone, the Kindle, and the iPad have become or might become central to users.
Scholarly publishers have site-centric approaches for defensible and rational reasons — institutions buy access to domain sites; technology providers in our space are geared toward site-centric approaches (from HighWire and its ilk to CrossRef and its approach); and only a minority of sites have been able to scale beyond the site-centric approach to see what other options might exist.
Yet, when you list out the forces at play (browsing, feeds, alerting, devices) in creating an audience, it seem that in some ways, scholarly publishers could get trapped in the site-centric model.
We reflect site-centric thinking when we do usability testing, for instance. I’ll bet that most of your usability testing has been about the site, and not about the usability of the complement of information options you use or could use. Did you ask if the email you send is usable and ties nicely with the site? Did you ask if landing on your site from Google made sense? Or were you just testing the usability of your site? If so, that’s site-centric, and potentially part of the trap that keeps us in the rut.
Because of habits of mind like this, we’ve probably over-engineered our site offerings. And with online still severely undervalued as a communication medium, these lavish expenditures may not earn back.
For instance, I’ve always wondered why, instead of creating a full-featured site, I shouldn’t just make a great email system and a good search engine, with minimal HTML and a bunch of PDFs on the back end. After all, if customers want the convenience of an online journal, this approach would satisfy all editorial and customer requirements, while slashing my costs.
Is there really a premium for “pretty” among scholarly Web sites?
Email is the lifeblood of our sites, driving the majority of traffic for us. Google does most of the rest. Twitter and Facebook are increasingly important in some fields. PubMed and other specialized search repositories are also major sources of awareness and traffic.
Why do I need a big Web site to benefit from all this?
Let’s say I have a decent site. If I were to add a good Twitter presence and maybe make the home page more like a blog (maybe even run it off WordPress) while delivering PDFs to authorized users, my online presence might improve substantially, and at a fraction of the cost of what I’m paying the site-centric providers now.
I could still sell the site to institutions. I would probably have the same level of traffic (with a blog main page, I might actually be more visible in Google), and I’d be less tied to any particular provider of technology products.
Are we spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on over-engineered, site-centric solutions? Is the “Age of the Big Website Build” drawing to a close?