Simplicity is a website's strongest asset in a cyber universe inundated with information

Stating the obvious: A website is one of an organization's most strategic public-facing assets.

Stating the obvious: A website is one of an organization's most strategic public-facing assets.

So why are so many corporate sites so unappealing? And why do some seem designed to thwart journalists, not help them?

The deep penetration of the internet into our lives has created a powerful reality. Apart from advertising, news coverage, personal dealings with customers, and other such interactions, a website is almost certainly the most common way people from outside come to visit.

As always, first impressions matter. Newcomers to a site are, in effect, walking up the sidewalk to your home. If the grounds are strewn with junk - such as the pointless animations that some sites force visitors to load before they can get to the actual information - they'll enter the building with some unpleasant preconceptions.

Once inside, they're not mere visitors. Think of them as guests. Either way, how you treat them will make a difference.

Journalists are among your pickier guests, of course. They want stuff - and help - from real people, and they want it all right now.

But the same principles that apply to press relations are instructive in thinking about the overall web presence. After all, reporters are just one of your constituencies.

Looking at your site through visitors' eyes always helps. We all prefer sites that are thorough, simple, and open.

When I say thorough, I mean include everything. Storage is cheap. Once something is on the website, it should never be removed - unless it's incorrect. Even then, the replacement should note that there was a correction. Your history is part of who you are. To remove it is to suggest that there's something to hide.

Simple does not mean vapid. It means, in large part, designing for ease of use. For example, if the link to the press pages on a site is not blatantly obvious on either the home page or a prominent "About" page, the site is not simple enough.

Journalists aren't fond of sites that give them no idea whom to call about a particular topic, or that require filling out a web form and praying that someone will call back later. The more quickly they can find the person they need, the better.

Increasingly, corporate sites meet basic standards. But when it comes to the kind of openness I advocate, few are even in the ballpark.

We're entering an era of conversational media, not traditional lectures from on high. Companies should use their sites to encourage back and forth with various constituencies. Blogs, discussion boards, and other such tools are the means, but if senior leaders don't buy into the idea, the tools won't matter.

I'm not talking about CEO blogs, though once in a while a chief executive does a good one. This is a cultural change, a splicing of the standard corporate DNA. It wasn't possible before the internet. In the future, it'll be seen as normal.

Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His weblog is at bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor.

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