There are some very good services out there for testing Web sites, and I used to think they were the answer to a lot of Web site ills. Now I know better. I have gotten close to a couple of companies that have conducted the tests and have seen them struggle to use the information they paid for.
It’s not that the tests don’t work. It’s that companies aren’t able to mobilise around the results. I’ve seen Web site improvements stymied for reasons ranging from the need for a new worldwide WAN to the lack of common authoring systems inside the company.
Often, the changes most called for require a level of commitment — money, time and attention — that companies weren’t expecting when they initiated their evaluations.
The following are some tips for those of you contemplating the use of a Web site testing service:
1. Do the test when you’re heading into a major redesign. You’ll be spending money anyway, and the test will help you prioritise features to test. If you do the test and aren’t committed to making the changes indicated, you’ve wasted the test. If you wait six months to implement the results, they’ll probably be invalid.
2. Do lots of internal public relations before the test. In many cases, you already know what you need to fix or redesign in your Web site, but a redesign effort will get more commitment if there is corroboration from outside the IT organisation. Management will feel better about spending money on a Web site redesign or upgrade if an “authority” outside IT makes it clear where the work is needed.
3. Pay attention to the test routine itself. Like anything else, the more time and effort spent at the front end, the more useful the results will likely be. Consider hiring an outside consultant to help you decide what aspects of your Web site to test.
4. Test competitors. Having your Web site evaluated can tell you lots about where to fix it, but testing your competitors can tell you how urgent the need to fix it is. This can help secure funds. The results can be invaluable in helping you prioritise improvements.
5. Do lots of internal PR after the test. If you’re going to go through a major Web site redesign, you’re going to need to build support for the changes with a lot of internal constituents. A dog-and-pony show about the results of an external evaluation is an excellent forum for internal education and politicking.
Getting the most out of a major Web site evaluation is a little like getting the most out of a market study, which is my company’s business. If you act on the results, the cost of the test or study can be insignificant compared to the value of the information. If you don’t, you’ve blown the cost of the study.
John Gantz is a senior vice president at IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.